Distemper was the most common, fatal, infectious disease in dogs when the present veterinary partners in the Elizabeth Street Veterinary Clinic started their professional careers in the 1960s. Today, thanks to effective vaccines, the disease is rare in the UK but regrettably still common in other parts of eastern and southern Europe.
Dogs infected by the distemper virus have a fever, are lethargic and vomit. They develop diarrhoea, weeping eyes and snotty noses, and then pneumonia. Those that survive may go on to develop muscle twitching or seizures. Some develop hard, cracked pads so another term for ‘distemper’ was ‘hardpad’.
In 1901 the Pasteur Vaccine Company released a vaccine to prevent distemper. Alfred Sewell here at Elizabeth Street used the vaccine, but in time he concluded it wasn’t effective. In 1904 Alfred Sewell publically challenged the Pasteur Vaccine Company over their claim that their vaccine, against the bacteria Pasteurella canis was effective. Sewell proved to be correct when in the following year Henri Carré discovered the ‘filterable agent’, the virus, that actually causes distemper.
In the meantime, the Elizabeth Street vets continued actively treating dogs for this dreadful disease. In 1915 Alfred’s son Louis Sewell graduated from the Royal Veterinary College. It was World War One and he immediately joined the Army Veterinary Corps, but upon leaving the army in 1920, Lieutenant Louis Durden Douglas Sewell joined ‘Sewell & Cousens’ on Elizabeth Street. Within a few years Louis wrote Canine Distemper: A Practical Handbook. This was the first book devoted completely to the treatment of distemper. Louis Sewell used ‘live-in canine nurses’ at ‘The Distemper Hospital’near Harrods, on Monpelier Place, South Kensington to care for his patients.
(In 1925 when his father Alfred retired it was Frederick Cousens who acquired the Elizabeth Street Royal Warrants as ‘Canine Surgeon’ to King George V, Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra. Louis Sewell was denied the Appointments, perhaps because of a scandal involving his failed and very public Divorce Petition in 1922, described by the presiding judge as ‘bordering on the frivolous’.)
In the meantime, the magazine The Field set up a Distemper Fund, bringing together the landed gentry, many of whom were clients of Elizabeth Street, and scientists. In 1933, the first truly effective vaccine was produced.