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Monday, January 19, 2015

Veterinary Education in Indiana: From Horses to Hogs to the Human-Animal Bond


By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
January 19, 2015

Though Purdue’s first veterinary class graduated just over 50 years ago (in 1963), there had been a long and vibrant history of veterinary education dating back to the 1890s. 

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Indiana was home to the fourth-largest private college in the country, the Indiana Veterinary College. When the college closed in 1924, the AVMA referred to its “honorable existence for over 30 years,”(2) and noted that there remained only eleven veterinary colleges in the country. “Whether these [eleven colleges] will satisfactorily discharge the responsibilities which have fallen upon their shoulders, time only will tell.”

A smaller college in Terre Haute did not operate as long, but is reported to have contained impressive clinical facilities including those for dogs and cats. That was unusual because the major focus sustaining for-profit schools in that era was the medical management of the large numbers of city horses which were the mainstay of urban commerce and personal conveyance before the arrival of the internal combustion engine. With the disappearance of the horse, the impact of WWI and increasing regulatory challenges, the for-profit colleges of that era all closed. 

Meanwhile, some 60 miles northwest of Indianapolis in West Lafayette, Purdue University began instruction as the state’s land grant university in 1874. A vibrant animal and public health research program within the Department of Veterinary Science in the School of Agriculture soon began to develop.  The second department chair was Walter L. Williams who had studied at McGill in Canada under physician William Osler. Williams was a passionate researcher, educator and clinician. Though he stayed only a few years before being recruited to New York by James Law as one of the founding faculty at Cornell, he left an indelible mark on the reputation for quality and rigor in the new department at Purdue.

The department soon developed a program in bacteriology and milk quality under physician/veterinarian, A.W. Bitting; and hog cholera under veterinarian Robert A. Craig, who remained department chair until his death in 1939. Under Craig’s leadership, a hog cholera virus and antiserum facility was established at Purdue that served the entire state and gained national recognition. Research programs were also established in Brucellosis, swine dysentery and other important livestock diseases. During the 1940s, graduate programs at the MS and PhD levels were established, and the teaching of veterinary courses to undergraduate agriculture students expanded.

At the end of WWII, seven veterinary colleges were established at other universities, including at the land grant universities in neighboring Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri; and the Purdue trustees started planning a veterinary college of their own. Established in 1957, the college was first called the School of Veterinary Science and Medicine to recognize its foundation in the former Department of Veterinary Science and its ongoing commitment to research and scholarship. 

The development of the college in the 1960s coincided with several major changes in the veterinary profession. Though still critically important in a state with a strong agricultural economy, livestock and public health were no longer the only priorities.  Companion animal medicine was becoming an important aspect of veterinary education, research and clinical practice, and more faculty were being appropriated to this burgeoning field of study.  Clinical specialties were becoming established to supplement primary care practice, and new techniques including radiation imaging were becoming commonplace as the dogs, cats and other pets moved into households and became part of the family structure.

Purdue also tested innovative curricular initiatives with a goal of allowing students to spend more instructional time in the clinical areas of their choice. Faculty experimented with new educational technologies, including the “Block System” for scheduling courses, and Purdue became known nationally for many of these advances.

In 1982 the Center for the Human-Animal Bond (3) was established, marking the growing recognition of the importance of pets within the family structure, and the critical role that pets and other animals play in the psychological and physiological health of humans. Purdue’s 21st century research involving animal and human health and the biomedical sciences also is impacting such strategic areas as oncology, biosecurity and infectious diseases.

Over a century and a quarter of advancing animal and human health, Indiana educational programs have covered the spectrum from the private, for profit urban colleges of the late 19th century, to the land grant’s veterinary science department model of the first half of the 20th century, to the comprehensive veterinary medical college of the last 60 years. 

In some respects, it’s a microcosm of the entire history of veterinary medicine in the United States.

By Dr. Donald F. Smith, dfs6@cornell.edu



1. J Amer Vet Med Assoc 1924; 66(4): 401-403
2. Stockton, Jack J (editor). A Century of Service. Veterinary Medicine in Indiana 1884-1984. (Indiana Veterinary Medical Association 1984) p 126-9
3. Originally called the Center for Applied Ethology and Human-Animal Bond



Thursday, January 15, 2015

Five Tuskegee University Veterinary Graduates from the 1970s Become Deans

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
January 15, 2015

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day

Patterns of leadership in veterinary medicine fascinate me.  Why, for example, are there so many foreign-educated veterinary deans and department chairs in our country’s veterinary colleges? (1,2) Why are there so few women deans? (3)

Now, a question that I’ve also pondered for some time: why have so many Tuskegee DVM graduates from the 1970s attained dean positions? There have been fewer than 100 permanent dean appointments in the AAVMC-member US veterinary colleges in the last three decades, yet five who graduated during the 1970s are Tuskegee graduates. All are African-American.

"Lifting the Veil"
Statue of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee University
Photo by the author, 2012

During African American History Month in February, I shall share with readers some of the responses I received from these deans about what inspired them to achieve such distinction.

But first, who are these five leaders? 

Alfonza Atkinson served as the fifth veterinary dean at Tuskegee University from 1999 until his untimely passing in 2004. Also an undergraduate at Tusksegee, Dr. Atkinson received his DVM in 1973. He was subsequently awarded a MPH (1988) and a PhD from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Environmental Health Science-Environmental Toxicology Program (1995).  Dr. Atkinson was a commissioned veterinarian at the Birmingham (Alabama) Racing Commission, and also a supervisory veterinary medical officer in the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service in Tallahassee, Florida. He returned to Tuskegee as a member of the faculty in the departments of Microbiology and Biomedical Sciences. He was associate dean for administration and interim dean before being appointed dean of the college.


Michael Blackwell, the son of a graduate of Tuskegee's second DVM class, was appointed dean at the University of Tennessee in 2000. He was the first African-American dean of a majority veterinary college. Dr. Blackwell operated a private veterinary practice following graduation in 1975. He then entered public service, working for the FDA for 20 years in both human and veterinary branches, and rising to the position of deputy director of the Center for Veterinary Medicine.  In 1994 he was appointed chief veterinarian of the U.S. Public Health Service, and in 1997 promoted to the rank of Assistant Surgeon General (Rear Admiral) of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Blackwell was appointed chief of staff of the Office of the Surgeon General in 1999. From there, he moved to Knoxville and served as dean for more than several years.  Dr. Blackwell, who also holds the MPH degree, is now Senior Director of Veterinary Policy for the Humane Society of the United States.

Phillip Nelson received his undergraduate degree from Jackson State University where his father, a Tuskegee graduate with a degree in Food Service Administration, was Assistant Vice President for Business Affairs. After earning his DVM from Tuskegee in 1979, he developed his clinical skills in internal medicine at Mississippi State University, and later pursued a PhD in immunology and biotechnology at North Carolina State University.  His research activities primarily focused on feline infections as biological models for human HIV, and the development of lymphocytic immunity in the dog and cat. Dr. Nelson returned to Tuskegee as head of the Department of Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, then in 1994 moved back to Mississippi State as associate dean, a position he held for over a decade. He then moved to Western University of the Health Sciences in Pomona, California and became Executive Associate Dean of the Pre-clinical Curriculum. Two years later, in 2007, he succeeded Dr. Shirley Johnston as the second dean of the college. Dean Nelson serves on various committees of the AVMA and AAVMC, with a special interest in diversity issues as they relate to the veterinary profession.

A board-certified radiologist, Ruby Perry is interim dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences at Tuskegee University. She is the first female African American veterinary dean in the United States.  Dr. Perry had previously served as associate dean for academic affairs since 2007. After undergraduate studies at Belhaven College and Jackson State University, Dr. Perry received her BS and DVM from Tuskegee in 1976 and 1977, respectively. She initially pursued a clinical career, completing the veterinary radiology residency at Michigan State University and an MS degree (Microbiology).  Dr. Perry’s administrative experience includes section chief of veterinary radiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University, acting chair of the department of small animal medicine, surgery and radiology at Tuskegee University, interim chief of staff in the office of the president at Tuskegee University. A decorated teacher and mentor, she has been recognized for her leadership in professional and community service. She is a former president of the Tuskegee Veterinary Medical Association.

Willie Reed graduated from Tuskegee in 1978, then attended Purdue where he earned a PhD in veterinary pathology. A diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and charter diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, Dr. Reed served for several years on the Purdue faculty in the avian diagnostic services assuming increasing administrative responsibilities, and was eventually recruited to Director of the Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratory (4) at Michigan State University (1990). He was subsequently named Chair of the Department of Pathobiology and Diagnostic Investigation. Dr. Reed returned to Purdue in 2008 as dean, a position he currently holds. Reed has held several other major leadership positions in veterinary medicine, including President of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), president of the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians (AAVLD), and chair of the AVMA’s Council on Research. He was appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of Zoetis Inc. in 2014.





(1) Smith, Donald F. Foreign-Born Deans of Veterinary Medicine. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine. December  5, 2014.
(2) Smith, Donald F. Education of a Dean. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine. July 7, 2013.
(3) Smith, Donald F. and Julie Kumble. Mentoring as a Career Factor: Six US Women Veterinary Deans Reflect. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine. September 12, 2013.
(4) Now called the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health  

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Louis A. Merillat, Veterinarian of the Half-Century

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted January 13, 2015

Lost from the memories of most living veterinarians is the man who some considered the most influential veterinarian of the first half of the 20th century. At least, that’s how the Chicago Tribune referred to him when reporting an interview with him in July 1950, when he was 82.

“I’ve worked for two things during my life,” he told the Tribune, “better education in veterinary medicine and better working conditions for the educated man.”(1)

Dr. Louis A. Merillat
(Photo provided by AVMA)
The son of a horseman from Ohio, Merillat attended the Ontario Veterinary College--it was less expensive than living in New York City-- then moved to Chicago to learn more about equine medicine from Matthew McKillip. Though a physician and not a veterinarian, McKillip had one of the most successful equine practices in the country and he would later start a three-year veterinary college that carried his name.

Merillat became an instructor at McKillip (1893-1900; 1913-19) and also the Chicago Veterinary College (1900-13) while maintaining a vibrant equine practice during the heyday of the urban horse. Working and teaching out of the McKillip College facilities as well as his own practice at 1827 S. Wabash Street, he developed new surgical operations and anesthetic techniques. His expertise attracted the attention of some of the most prominent stables of the city, including several with show teams of draft horses.

During WWI he was a veterinarian for the 41st Division and later became chief veterinarian for the First Army. According to the Tribune, "he supervised the care and treatment of tens of thousands for horses crippled in battle."

After the war, he returned to France and spent six months studying at the Alfort National Veterinary College. By the time he returned home, “the automobile had wiped out" his practice so he turned to writing. He authored a major book on equine surgery and became editor-in-chief of the JAVMA.  He also authored a two-volume book on military veterinary history.  Always having been active in organized veterinary medicine, he served a president of AVMA in 1924-25.

Near the end of his life, at the 60th anniversary of his Ontario Veterinary College graduation in 1948, he was toasted as the “outstanding veterinarian in America.”

Merillat died on Feb 25, 1956, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.



(1) Merrick, Mary Lee. Dr. Merillat is Honored as Veterinarian. Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1950. This citation applies to quotations and information throughout this story.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Walter Williams, Cornell's Only Non-Credentialed Veterinary Faculty

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted January 5, 2015

It took Walter Williams 40 years to get a steady job.

In the years between growing up on a farm and attending a one-room school in Illinois to becoming an inaugural faculty at Cornell’s veterinary college in 1896, Williams attended a Presbyterian seminary, the Illinois Industrial University (now the University of Illinois) and the Montreal Veterinary College in Canada. His principal instructors were a veterinarian from London’s Royal Veterinary College (while in Illinois) and, in Montreal, a physician who was just seven years his senior.  Though he had taken several veterinary courses in the agricultural college in Champaign-Urbana, his total veterinary college exposure was a single six-month session at Montreal. [i]

Because Williams never completed any single course of study, he never earned a diploma or degree of any sort.  His sole award of merit (from Montreal) was a medal that according to Cornell lore, his children used as a teething ring.

Following his short stint in Montreal, Williams practiced rural veterinary medicine in Indiana, and held positions at Purdue University and Montana Agricultural College in Bozeman. While there, he received an invitation from Louis A. Merillat, the founder of the McKillip Veterinary College in Chicago, to teach at that college. When negotiations broke down, Merillat invited Williams to apply for the position as dean but that offer, also, was not consummated.

Instead, Williams went east to Ithaca, NY, where he became one the six founding faculty of the new veterinary college at Cornell University under the leadership of James Law. Professor Law determined that a clinician (in addition to himself) was needed to complement the histologist, physiologist, pathologist and anatomist already assembled. Just a couple of months before the college was to open with a class of 11 students, he invited Williams to travel to Ithaca for an interview. Williams subsequently became the sixth faculty member to be recruited for the fledgling college.

Though he never held a veterinary degree, Williams was an able clinician. He also had a scientific mind having been educated in the basic sciences by none other than William Osler, who would go on to become one of the founding faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the leading physician of his generation.

The lack of formal credentials, noteworthy even at this early stage in veterinary education, did not diminish the wisdom shown by James Law in recruiting Williams to be one of Cornell’s founding faculty.  For the fledgling university to reach all the way across the country for a Chair of Surgery must have seemed ironic to some people, however, because shortly after his appointment was announced, an acquaintance of Williams is said to have remarked, “Well that is from the sublime to the ridiculous, for Cornell University to come to Montana for a professor.”



[i] Leonard, Ellis P. A Cornell Heritage: Veterinary Medicine 1868-1908. (Ithaca, New York, New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, 1979) 190-8. This citation applies to quotations and information throughout this story.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk '46 Salutes the Students Involved in Women's Leadership


By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted October 7, 2014

I recently received a hand-written, two-page letter from a veterinarian who graduated from Cornell in 1946.  It was my first communication from Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk since she returned to Cornell for her class reunion eight years ago. That reunion, the only one she ever attended, had been a partial reconciliation visit for Dr. Salk as the memories of her student days at Cornell were not pleasant.

Dr. Syliva Burg Salk, center seating during Class of 1946 reunion, June 1946
Photo by Cornell University

Sylvia Burg was a bright, young Jewish woman who grew up in the small town of Hunter, deep in the Catskill area, 125 miles north of New York City.  Though Cornell had accepted its first woman veterinary student in 1905, and by 1940 had graduated many more women than any other US veterinary college (15), Burg’s first application was denied.

She applied the following year, and was again denied.  Frustrated and angry, Sylvia’s mother traveled to Cornell and met with the dean, Dr. William Arthur Hagan. “I know neither the substance nor the tenor of the conversation,” Dr. Salk told me when I visited her in California in 1999, “but it must have been interesting because I was admitted the following fall on my third attempt.”[i]

Sylvia met her future husband “over a horse carcass during dissection lab.” Herman Salk had been a veterinary student at Middlesex College in Massachusetts, the college established in the mid-1930s, primarily to accommodate Jewish students, but forced to close by the AVMA a few years later because it was alleged to have been substandard. At the time, the feeling of many close to the situation was that the closure of both the Middlesex medical and veterinary colleges was related to anti-Semitism.[ii]  Regardless of the circumstances that sealed their fate, Herman was one of the few students admitted to Cornell as a transfer student to complete his education.

Dr. Herman Maurice Salk, Graduation Photo
Courtesy of Cornell University
Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk, Graduation Photo
Courtesy of Cornell University

The Salks moved to Vermont following graduation and Sylvia became the state’s first female veterinarian. They joined with a classmate named George Brightenback, with Sylvia doing the small animal work while the two men looked after the large animals in the practice. After a brief period in which Herman worked in the virology department of Parke-Davis labs, the Salks moved to a farm in western Pennsylvania where Herman raised laboratory mice for $100 a month. They supplemented their income by operating a small animal practice out of their home using the kitchen table as an operating table.

Those were also the days when Herman's brother, Jonas Salk, was feverishly working at the nearby University of Pittsburgh to develop the polio vaccine that bears his name. The children of the two families grew up together during this period in the early 50s when the vaccine was being developed and tested.

In 1954, Herman and Sylvia left the East, moving to the desert region of California, where they opened a small animal practice.

For a substantial part of their adult lives, however, the Salks did humanitarian and veterinary work in developing cultures. Their international involvement began in the late ‘60s when they hosted African exchange students in their home. A decade later, their son, Steven (a veterinary graduate from UC, Davis) worked with the Masai tribe through the USAID program. Sylvia visited him in 1975, and was so moved by the need amongst the Masai that she convinced her husband to make their ultimate career move.

Answering an advertisement in the AVMA journal to work with Heifer Project International, the Salks sold their practice and started a new chapter of their life. They spent the next several years on a series of tours of duty, working in Africa (Cameroon and Egypt) and in the Far East (Thailand, China and Laos). When they returned to the US, they worked in the Southwest with the Navajo and Hopi nations.

Their experiences were remarkable, Dr. Sylvia Salk told me.

We lived under challenging conditions, but our work was satisfying. We taught vaccination strategies, production medicine, nutrition and management. We tried to leave places better than we found them.

In 1990, four and a half decades after she left Cornell, Dr. Sylvia Salk enrolled in a MS program in international public health at Loma Linda University.  As the only veterinarian in the class—and certainly having the most abundant world experience—she was able to bring a broad perspective to the program, especially in the area of zoonotic diseases. For example, she reminded faculty and students alike to check cattle for scabies while visiting villagers for the same condition.  She also described the efficiency of management opportunities, describing techniques for raising ducks and pigs over the village fish pond.

One of the Salks’ many legacies is a scholarship program they established in the late ‘70s that provided funding for African students to come to the US for college education in the health sciences, education or agriculture. Dozens of students benefitted from the program, including a young Masai woman who became the first woman from her tribe to pursue an advanced degree.

Returning to that letter I received from Dr. Salk on September 9th, she said how happy she was to read the current issue of “Scopes,” the college newsletter in which she learned of the Cornell students establishing a chapter of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative. 

She was excited that things had changed from when she had been a student. I could sense her pride in being one of the survivors from very challenging era in our history, and contrasting her experiences with the changes that we see today.[iii] 

Reading about the student chapter of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative restored a feeling of pride in Cornell that I had lost many years ago when I was a student in the early ‘40s. Both my husband, Herman, and I felt disenfranchised. As the years went by … we never truly reconciled with our Alma mater.…

Now that I’m in my 91st year, I fully admire what you and Cornell are doing. Thank you for your dedication to a long-neglected phase of Cornell history.

One of the challenges we face in researching and teaching the history of veterinary medicine is that we tend to see the profession in the context of our own times. How soon we forget what it was like only two or three generations ago. Viewing the transformation of the profession across decades of time is important, however, and we must not too easily dismiss the experiences of those whose persistence and success despite tough odds have helped shape the opportunities we have today. 

Especially for the women such as Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk, to whom we owe so much.





[i] Salk, Sylvia Burg (DVM 1946). Interview with Donald F. Smith (Cornell University) in Palm Springs, California, 1999.
[ii] Smith, Donald F.  Middlesex Veterinary College: A Short-Lived Experiment in Meritocracy. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine. October 24, 2013.
[iii] Salk, Sylvia Burg (DVM 1946). Letter to Donald F. Smith (Cornell University) Sept 9, 2014.

Dr. Smith invites comments at dfs6@cornell.edu