From Slave to Renowned Veterinarian: The Story Of Dr. William “Bill” Key

Dr William Key


In 1833, Dr. William Key was born as a slave. Captain John Key was his commanding officer. When the Captain died when Bill was five, he left a family of slaves, including William, to his cousin, John W. Key of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Key demonstrated a remarkable talent for working with horses and mules as early as the age of six.

He was given special attention as a child because of his ability to work well with farm animals. He learned to read and experimented with animal remedies after learning to read.

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The relationship between the John W. Key family and Bill grew stronger over time, and after the Civil War, when the Key family lost everything, Bill stepped in and helped send John W. Key’s two sons to Harvard. These are the same two young boys Bill had followed into the Civil War in order to protect them.

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Bill rose to prominence as a veterinarian and equine dentist. Dr. Key, as he was known, also practiced dentistry and other healing arts for slaves.


In downtown Shelbyville, Dr. Key established a horse hospital. The townspeople thought of him as a veterinarian despite the fact that he had no formal training. He also owned a racetrack, a restaurant, and a hotel, as well as a successful pharmaceutical company. Within five years, “Dr.” Key had become one of Shelbyville’s wealthiest men.

This enabled him to devote his time and resources to the sport of kings, horse racing, with the goal of breeding the world’s fastest racehorse. A. R. Rogers’ aggressive promotion helped Beautiful Jim become a celebrity. The horse performed in major cities ranging from Atlantic City to Chicago. Dr. Key frequently stated that he taught the horse with only patience and kindness, never with a whip.

Dr. Key’s race limited Beautiful Jim’s opportunities despite his obvious talent. Dr. Key, no matter how eloquent or talented he was, was only allowed to compete in certain competitions because he was a black man in the 1800s.

Dr. Key was asked to serve on the Tennessee Centennial Exposition’s “Negro Committee” in 1897. Beautiful Jim agreed to appear on stage in front of none other than President William McKinley. President McKinley praised both the horse and the training methods.

When Dr. Key traveled with Beautiful Jim, the horse rode in private train cars, drank purified water, and ate hay fit for a celebrity. He also had a large entourage. Dr. Key, two grooms, a veterinarian, and Monk, a former stray dog who served as the horse’s companion and bodyguard, accompanied him. Monk, the dog, enjoyed riding on the back of the horse.



Written by How Africa News

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