Vic Simpson – tribute –

Vic Simpson, BVSc, DTVM, CBiol, FIBiol, MRCVS, FRSB, Hon FRCVS

Sadly died on 31st July 2018 aged 77 years.

Many tributes to Vic Simpson will be written covering his life and work.  His work on the pathology of otters and friendship with James Williams, gifted the Somerset Otter Group a wealth of information and knowledge. Vic would only receive the otter bodies fresh, in initial years James engaged the help of guards on trains to transport them from Taunton to Truro.


Vic received many awards and recognition, he will have been aware of the high esteem in which he was regarded by so many.

Vic was recognised with awards from;

  • The British Veterinary Zoological Society.
  • The Cornwall Veterinary Association.
  • The Institute of Biology.
  • The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
  • 2002, the Veterinary Award at the BBC Animal Awards.
  • 2010, an award from the Cornwall Mammal Group.
  • 2011, the recipient of the British Veterinary Association’s most prestigious scientific award for his immense contribution to increasing the knowledge base of the pathology of wildlife species in Great Britain.
  • 2016, awarded the Mammal Society Award for Outstanding Services to Mammalogy.
  • 2016, he received international recognition when he was presented with the Wildlife Disease Association’s Emeritus Award.


Vic Simpson graduated from Bristol in 1964. Then five years in mixed practice in the UK, two years in Kenya, and four years in Botswana. On return to the UK he joined the Veterinary Investigation Service, (later the Veterinary Laboratories Agency), working at Polewhele laboratory near Truro.

Wildlife VIC

Vic retired in 2001 and set up the Wildlife Veterinary Investigation Centre (Wildlife VIC) run jointly with his wife Jane. The centre was dedicated to studying diseases of free living wildlife. It was run on a not-for-profit basis and although working closely with Cornwall Wildlife Trust and other conservation bodies, it was entirely independent.  In it’s first 5 years it examined more than 1,300 casualties.

It was set up with three main objectives;

  • To investigate incidents of wildlife mortality, such as where numbers of animals are reported dead or dying.
  • To monitor the health status of wildlife, especially those specimens in decline or threatened.
  • To examine healthy specimens and a build a database of normal values. These would include things like body weight, organ size, tissue trace element levels and blood counts.

Notable discoveries and work

Vic Simpson’s work went far beyond otters:

  • Work on swan deaths in the 1970s resulted in the banning of anglers’ lead shot.
  • 1990, Vic started work on stranded cetaceans and identified causes of death, 80% of dolphin strandings showed characteristic signs of death in a trawl.
  • 1996, heartworm Angiostrongylus vasorum, discovered in foxes
  • 2003, in collaboration with scientists in America and Liverpool University, a parasite affecting the hearts of pine martens was identified for the first time in the UK.
  • A new species of bacteria was discovered affecting bats.
  • A press release on Salmonellosis in garden birds, spread at bird tables.
  • Presented a paper on bone disease in buzzards.
  • 2004, the discovery of a parasite in the lungs of red squirrels.
  • Diseases of moles.
  • The effect of anticoagulant rodenticides on barn owls, stoats and weasels.
  • Paper on Bile fluke, Hepatozoon sp. in pine martens.
  • Paper on blood parasites in bats.
  • High levels of lead in bats, tested in samples some archived from 1985.
  • 2005, Trichomonas, a single celled parasite, a common disease of pigeons and captive falcons, discovered killing greenfinches. Outbreaks appeared confined to gardens with use of bird tables, believed associated with summer feeding. All finches are affected and some blackbirds and dunnocks found to be affected.
  • 2008, Candidiasis, thrush, found as a cause of death in a juvenile red squirrel.
  • 2008, study started into exudative, ulcerated skin disease in red squirrels on the Isle of Wight. Staphylococcus aureus present in all cases. Important research, the symptoms resemble that of the squirrelpox.
  • 2009, first records of a spiral bacteria resembling Borrelia species found in the liver of a pipistrelle bat.
  • 2010, heartworm Angiostrongylus vasorum discovered in a stoat, believed to be the first case. Usually found in dogs and foxes.
  • 2012, examination of large numbers of auks, drowned, confirmed seen being removed from fishing nets. An interview with Vic and record of the autopsy can be found;
  • Avian autopsy protocol by Vic.

Imparting of knowledge

Vic gave time to numerous students at Wildlife VIC, providing a unique opportunity for young vets wishing to study wildlife pathology. He attended at least one if not several conferences each year where he has presented papers on results from his work at the Wildlife VIC.

In 2011 these included conferences held by the Mammal Society, the British Veterinary Zoological Society, the Belgian Wildlife Disease Society and the IUCN Otter Specialist Group where he gave a talk in Pavia, Italy. He also ran a two day workshop at Edinburgh University demonstrating autopsy techniques, together with talks to the Cornwall Mammal Group and Cornwall Bat Group.


Vic started examining otters in 1988, whilst with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, Truro, and from 2001 to 2007 with the Wildlife VIC. Mostly funded by the Environment Agency (EA),  in May 2007 the EA proposed cutting the funding by 65%, the cuts made it impossible to employ an assistant veterinary pathologist. The otter autopsy contract had to be given up and was taken over by Cardiff University.

Between 1988 and 2007 Vic examined 680 wild otters.

In 2000, on the Isle of Sky the first otter toxicology conference took place and Vic compiled the first autopsy protocol, published in the journal of the International Otter Survival Fund. Its intention was to standardise examinations to ensure meaningful comparisons of data could take place between different laboratories. In brief:

  • Record normal weight, size and appearance
  • Investigate any lesions, bacteriology, virology, histology, parasitology
  • Archive samples for toxicology, serology etc

In 2006 Vic wrote a paper with L Gibbons, L Khalil and James Williams. Cholecystitis in otters  (Lutra Lutra) caused by the fluke Pseudamphistomum Truncatum. Between 1988 and 2004 autopsies were carried out on 445 otters found dead, mostly as a result of road traffic accidents, in southern and south-west England. Thickened shrunken gall bladders were observed in 10 cases, the first in 2000 and the others between February 2002 and August 2004. A digenean fluke, Pseudamphistomum truncatum, was found in the gall bladders in three cases and also in three of the seven American Mink examined. Nine of the ten otters and all of the mink came from the Somerset Levels. P truncatum had not been recorded previously in the UK.

With 680 otters examined Vic was able to identify trends.  One trend he recorded was bite wounds, these were around 15% in the 1990s and as high as 70% in 2004. He believed this indicated increased competition for resources as the population increased, and that otters engaged in conflict are more likely to get run over. These percentages varied in differing areas. Somerset had lower percentages for bites. In frontier areas the split between ages were 80% of sub adults with bites and 40% of adults. Established areas were split 50/50.

His recording of bite wounds was meticulous, the size of the bites were measured and autopsy records valuably detailed three types of bites.

  • Domestic dogs – mostly cubs, sometimes sick adults.
  • American mink – rare at first, increasing.
  • Other otters (itraspecific aggression) – the most common cause.

Septic bite wounds are a significant cause of mortality.

Vic examined vitamin A in otters livers, he recorded good levels in most otters but low in bitten otters. The histology on eyes of 62 otters showed retinal dysplasia in a high 30% of the otters.

Vic discovered the first recorded case of Tyzzer’s disease in an otter cub submitted from Skye, it had very unusual lesions.

81% of otters Vic examined between 1988 and 2006 died as a result of Road Traffic collisions. 685 otters were adults, 58% male, 18% sub adult, 10% immature, 4% were cubs.

From 1999 to 2007, over 75 dead otters from Somerset were examined by Vic the subsequent autopsy records are a very valuable insight into the health of Somerset Otters.

A truly extraordinary man.

Lucy Mead, 2018.

Extracts for this summary of Vic’s work have been taken from Wildlife VIC’s newsletters and other papers held within the James Williams archive.