Herd mentality

A breakthrough that lead to better health programs for cattle launched Norm Williamson’s multi-faceted career

Norm Williamson

It has been 50 years since Professor Emeritus Norm Williamson (BVSc 1968, MVSc 1974) graduated as a veterinary scientist from the University of Melbourne. The milestone has given him pause to reflect on a career that has been both surprising and stellar.

He made his mark early. He was working at the University’s Veterinary Clinical Centre in Werribee when he hit on the idea of colour coding a cattle herd to assist a farmer in identifying the cows that needed particular supplements.

Painting their backsides with a strip of enamel, however, led to a breakthrough that revolutionised the detection of oestrus in cows. It came to be known as ‘tail painting’ and is still one of the world’s most widely used tools to detect cows on heat.

Like many discoveries, it was serendipitous. “I noticed that on many of the cows the strip of enamel paint had been rubbed off and that suggested they had been mounted,” recalls Professor Williamson.

He was not one to rest on his laurels. He went on to become a pioneer in the development and implementation of computationally-based herd health programs in dairy cattle. He has also enjoyed a lauded teaching career, an achievement that still surprises him.

“I was always terrified of teaching,” he admits. “The imposter syndrome was working well on me, particularly for lectures. By nature, I’m deeply introverted but I gained my legs over time in that regard.”

He was the youngest of three sons raised by Hector and Dorothy Williamson in Pascoe Vale South. His father was a self-styled importer of goods that ranged from machinery to Pakistani cricket bats for kids. Barrie, the middle son, followed his father into the family business while Kenneth, the eldest, pursued a career in civil engineering. From childhood, Professor Williamson had his heart set on veterinary science.

He failed, however, on his first attempt to gain entry to the University of Melbourne but the disappointment only hardened his resolve. After a year at Monash University studying Science, he landed his place in Veterinary Science at Melbourne.

He immediately felt at home and his passion for the animals and for the work has never dimmed. “The greatest satisfaction has been that my career has gone to places I never would have dreamt of,” he says.

His expertise in herd health attracted international attention. He spent ten years working at the University of Minnesota and recently received the Association of American Veterinary Medical College’s Billy E. Hooper Award for Distinguished Service. It’s given to an individual whose leadership and vision has made a significant contribution to academic veterinary medicine and the veterinary profession.

He also made his mark in New Zealand where he served for 11 years as Program Director in Veterinary Sciences at Massey University. In an echo of what he gained from working with the late Professor Doug Blood at the University of Melbourne, known as the father of herd health, he too has inspired those he worked with at Massey.

He is currently serving as the Chairman of the Veterinary Schools Accreditation Advisory Committee of the Australasian Veterinary Boards Council.

In addition to celebrating the golden anniversary of his graduation this year, the father of two will also mark his 50 years of marriage to wife Denise. “I have been admirably supported throughout my career by Denise and our children David and Jennifer” he says gratefully.

Professor Williamson is looking forward to returning to his alma mater at the invitation of Professor John Fazakerley, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. In honour of his former mentor, Professor Williamson will deliver the 2018 D.C. Blood Oration as part of the Dean’s Lecture series on 2 August 2018. See further information and register to attend on the event page.