In 1967, Helen married fellow vet student Ian Fairnie. In 1969, they moved to Western Australia where Ian lectured at Muresk Institute of Agriculture. Helen was five months pregnant. She set up a practice in the main street in the nearby town of Northam and created a play area at the back of the clinic. Their first son, Callum, was born in April and Helen started the vet practice in June.
At this time, both Ian and Helen enrolled in a bachelor of education course at the University of Western Australia. As well, Helen lectured to vet nurses and taught farmers attending short courses at Muresk. After lifting a large Labrador onto the examination table, she almost miscarried her second child. She returned to the vet practice but after the birth of Michael she struggled bringing up two children and managing the practice.
In the end, Helen had to quit running the vet practice. She was mentally and physically exhausted and felt terribly lonely because she had no friends. Ian encouraged her to become involved with the veterinary profession and she travelled 100 kilometres to the AVA’s veterinary practitioners branch annual meeting one Wednesday evening.
She was the only woman among more than 20 men vets. They were most welcoming and nominated her as secretary. At first, she was reluctant to take on this role, but Ian encouraged her to continue. She found she enjoyed it and after a year took on other AVA roles. Ultimately, she became national president in 1982-83, the first woman to hold that position.
In 1983, the AVA board made a successful bid for running the World Veterinary Congress in Perth. Helen was part of the organising committee and in promoting the bid the AVA board sent two kangaroos with chair Ian to Russia. Helen continued her involvement with the AVA at state and national level, and other professional veterinary activities.
While teaching farmers short courses at Muresk, Helen was surprised at the attitude some of them had towards rural vets. She won an Australian agricultural fellowship to research ways of improving relationships between farmers and vets.
In 1976, Helen and Ian moved to Perth. She continued her post-graduate studies at Murdoch University vet school and subsequently became its first graduate, with a master’s of philosophy in 1978. Meanwhile, she started work as a lecturer in medical technology at Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) (Curtin University 1987-). Helen took up a position there in 1987 as senior lecturer in community health; in 2010, she retired from Curtin University as an associate professor, School of Public Health.
During the 1980s, Helen became interested in the human-animal bond and undertook research that demonstrated the benefits a resident dog had on nursing home staff and residents. She was active in placing resident pets in acute hospitals and later, nursing homes.
Helen continued her interest in companion animals as a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota in 1985, 1989 and 1992. She taught a popular elective program on companion animals for Curtin University. In 1990, Ian moved to Minneapolis to run Curtin’s North American office. Helen became involved in study abroad and led study tours yearly for Curtin health science students to most countries in Asia.
In 2005, Helen completed her doctorate at Curtin University of Technology. Her PhD was on occupational injury, diseases, stress and suicide in veterinarians. She found the suicide rate in veterinarians in Australia to be four times the national average. This led to her involvement with the Veterinary Wellbeing group in Western Australia (now known as VetHealth) that is working to improve resilience in veterinarians and reduce the potential for suicide among veterinarians and their staff. She and colleague Brian McErlean ran a Wellness Centre at the annual conference of the AVA from 2009-2015. This provided advice on physical and mental wellbeing to veterinarians and their associates.
Helen Jones was one of 100 women veterinarians awarded the Belle Bruce Reid Medal in 2006. In May 2014, she was presented with the AVA’s President’s Award for her research on occupational health and safety, stress and suicide in veterinarians. Later in 2014, Helen was awarded the Melbourne University D.C. Blood Professional Achievement Award for a Melbourne Alumnus, which recognises alumni who have made outstanding contributions to their profession and society and who have shown exceptional dedication and leadership in their field.
Helen was recognised as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2017 for “significant service to veterinary science and animal welfare as a clinician and educator, and as a mentor to women in the profession”.
Helen’s extra-curricular activities include working with SAVE the African Rhino Foundation of Australia (SARF) that is helping save rhinoceros in Zimbabwe. In her honour, a young female rhino has been named Helen. In her veterinary role, Helen worked with the University of Zimbabwe’s faculty of veterinary medicine to obtain library books and repair equipment which the veterinary school lacked.
She travelled to Zimbabwe about six times, three of them leading veterinary safaris, at times juggling her chemotherapy treatments with her travels. She was an active member of Canning Bridge and Applecross Rotary clubs and in 2013 was awarded the Paul Harris Fellowship, Rotary’s highest honour.
Her final achievement, late 2019, was the publication of her book detailing the experiences of 104 notable women veterinarians in Australia – She’s No Lady – She’s the Vet: stories from 100 years of female vets in Australia (FairJo Publishing).
Helen Jones Fairnie died on her own terms in Bull Creek, WA, in September 2020, after a long battle with cancer. She was noted for her kindness, generosity and the support she gave to friends and family.
Colleagues commented that she was selfless and inspiring, a role model for young vets and a trailblazer for women in the veterinary profession. She had a wonderful smile that many commented on – “it was a constant, a lovely smile that lit up her face and showed her happy personality”. She leaves behind husband Ian, sons Callum and Michael and grandchildren Mason and Asha. She was extremely proud of all of them.
Paula H. Jones is Helen Jones Fairnie’s sister.