The Ex had never been more popular than it was in 1962 and ’63. More than three million people walked through the gates during those years. The crowds set new attendance records for Canada’s biggest fair — less than half as many visit these days. Many of those flocking to the Exhibition Grounds were about to see one of the most bizarre exhibits the CNE has ever displayed.
It was called Vetescope. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association organized it. They wanted to show Canadians that vets were more than just “horse doctors” – that they were a vital part of modern society, using cutting edge technology to keep our animals healthy. They billed it as “the biggest public relations venture that organized veterinary medicine has undertaken on this continent.”
It was huge. The full exhibit sprawled over 9,000 square feet in the gorgeous Hydro Building (they call it the Music Building now) and cost $1 million to prepare. There were more than 250 vets on hand to answer questions from the public, manning 18 displays about their profession. There was information about “radiology, anatomy, embryology, histology, pathology, bacteriology and parsitology”. But that’s not all. They also featured some attention-grabbing displays about the modern innovations in veterinary science.
You could, for instance, learn about the role of animal medicine in space exploration. And as part of the Large Animal display, members of the public could meet “Maggie the magnetized cow”. It seems she was equipped with one of the latest breakthroughs in bovine science: a cow magnet. It rested in her gut, collecting all of the metallic odds and ends a cow accidentally consumes over the course of her lifetime, thus preventing troublesome “hardware disease”. It was a brand new development back in the early 1960s; today the use of cow magnets is commonplace.
But it wasn’t the space age exhibit or the magnetized cow that grabbed the biggest headlines. The organizers of Vetescope had put together an even more dramatic demonstration of their profession. They had veterinarians perform live surgeries in front of crowds of curious onlookers.
People loved it. Thousands upon thousands of Torontonians and tourists showed up to witness the surgeries. So many, in fact, they couldn’t all get close enough to see through the windows into the operating room. Those who were too far away to see inside watched on a closed circuit television system.
For some of them, it was all a bit too much. As the doctors made their incisions into the tiny, furry patients on the operating table, many of those who were watching grew dizzy and weak in the knees. In one day alone, at least a dozen people fainted. One man passed out twice. Another recovered only to walk straight into a tree. One American newspaper called the operations “too realistic,” reporting that an average of three audience members were fainting during every surgery. “More than 50 visitors have been carried or helped out, and a few have required hospital treatment.” The organizers, fearing for public safety, made sure there were “fainting assistants” on hand to help those who did keel over.
Despite the queasy combination of cotton candy, corn dogs, roller coasters and live surgery, Vetescope was, by all accounts, a smashing success. Nearly 400,000 people came to see it in the first year alone. “[T]he general reaction could almost be described as one of astonishment,” a supporter later recalled. “It became apparent even to a child that medical care of animals is on par with that of humans.” The veterinary masterminds behind the exhibit were lauded for their public relations success.
In fact, it was such a big hit they made sure to capture it on film:
A version of this post originally appeared on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.