Maria Dickin, founder of PDSA, opened her free 'dispensary' for sick and injured animals in a Whitechapel basement on Saturday 17 November 1917 while the world was still in the grip of the First World War.
Maria Dickin (Mia to her friends) was born in London in 1870. She was the daughter of a Free Church minister and the eldest of eight children.
Maria was a bright, confident and independent-minded young woman who was never afraid to voice her beliefs. Driven by the zeal of her spiritualist faith and a determination to contribute to the family's meagre income, Maria decided to take a job. Women of her class in 1890's Britain were not expected to work but she ignored convention and opened a successful voice production studio in Wimpole Street, which attracted the patronage of famous singers of the day, including Clara Butt.
At the age of 28, Maria married her first cousin, Arnold Dickin. Arnold was an ambitious chartered accountant and, as his wife, Maria was encouraged to give up her work in order to look after the household. Intelligent, witty and supportive, she possessed and exercised all the social graces of a society wife. At the couple's home in Hampstead Heath, dinner guests would often include high profile personalities from the world of commerce, politics and the legal profession. However, giving up work left a gap in Maria’s life.
In need of fulfillment, Maria launched herself into social work. Visiting the poor of London's East End she was horrified by the dire poverty she witnessed, but it was the sight of animals suffering in silence that she found unbearable. In the streets dogs and cats, raw with mange and often dragging broken limbs, scavenged from the gutters.
Animals, such as goats and rabbits, huddled sick and injured in back yards. The horses and donkeys of costermongers and coal hawkers often worked lame and crippled by heavy loads.
Maria’s sheltered Victorian upbringing simply had not prepared her for what she encountered in the homes of the poor and later, in her book, The Cry of the Animal she recalled the scene:
'The suffering and misery of these poor, uncared-for creatures in our overcrowded areas was a revelation to me. I had no idea it existed, and it made me indescribably miserable.'
During the First World War, Maria Dickin CBE worked to improve the dreadful state of animal health in the Whitechapel area of London. She wanted to open a clinic where East Enders living in poverty could receive free treatment for their sick and injured animals.
Despite the scepticism of the establishment, Maria Dickin opened her free 'dispensary' in a Whitechapel basement on Saturday 17th November 1917. It was an immediate success and she was soon forced to find larger premises.
Within six years this extraordinary woman had designed and equipped her first horse-drawn clinic and soon a fleet of mobile dispensaries was established. PDSA vehicles soon became a comforting and familiar sight throughout the country.
With success came increased attention from critics at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Ministry of Agriculture. By providing free treatment for animals belonging to the poor, attracting charitable support and by training her own practitioners Maria Dickin was seen as a threat to the establishment. In 1937 she was forced to defend PDSA in a letter to the Royal College:
'If you are so concerned about proper treatment of the sick animals of the poor, open your own dispensaries ... Show owners how to care for their animals in sickness and health. Do the same work that we are doing. Instead of spending your energy and time hindering us, spend it dealing with this mass misery.'
An agreement was finally made with the veterinary profession allowing PDSA to continue its work although its role was to be defined by two Acts of Parliament (1949 and 1956). The Acts continue to govern the charity’s activities today.