Monday, May 4, 2015

Heralds of (Veterinary) History

I was extremely disinterested in history in school. Ancient Roman history, War of the Roses, American Civil War--nothing. As I grew older, I developed a cursory interest in World War II, no thanks to a brother and father who both craft an obsession with WWII airplanes. During my freshman year of vet school, however, we had one lecture taught by the resident medical illustrator, David J. Williams. He is the co-author of a book called Veterinary Medicine: An Illustrated History. Suddenly, history became relevant to me. I was fascinated by all the antiquated instruments, "treatments", and stories of the progression of science. (Don't get me started on the riveting history of the development of vaccines.)

Enter, then, my recent discovery of a small but passionate group of veterinarians and historians who make up the American Veterinary Medical History Society (AVMHS). The introduction on their homepage says it all, so I will quote:

"Veterinarians are often not aware of the historical significance of their profession. Generally, they and others do not know or do not realize the significant role that veterinary medicine has in American history. The profession has boosted static economies, assured war victories, provided safe meat and dairy products, helped build thriving livestock industries and has been instrumental in the development of human health measures."

The purpose of the society is five-fold:
  • to become aware of published and unpublished materials and artifacts pertaining to the history of veterinary medicine and health care of animals in North and South America; 
  • to promote research and study of veterinary history and related topics; 
  • to communicate information about veterinary history in part through publication of a journal/newsletter and through seminars/meetings; 
  • to develop and distribute educational materials on the history of veterinary medicine; and
  • to assess the role of veterinarians in society and to study their impact on animal and human medicine and scientific research.
I was fortunate enough last month to converse with Dr. Howard Erickson, professor of anatomy and physiology at Kansas State University and a past president of the AVMHS, on veterinary history and how it's important to keep it near and dear to the profession. Here's what he had to say.

"Winston Churchill said, 'The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.' I think veterinarians need to know something about their history in order to make significant advancements in the profession, to make new discoveries in disease, in vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and also to be the best in their clinical specialty."

Howard has served on the board of directors for AVMHS from 2006 to 2009. He has presented numerous papers on various historical veterinary topics and teaches a one hour elective on the history of veterinary medicine in the fall semester at KSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I started going to AVMHS meetings on occasion about 20 years ago," Howard says of his initial interest in the subject. "I think I became more actively involved in the AVMHS when I helped write the history of our college [KSU] for our centennial in 2005."
Some of Howard's past professors helped shape his interest in history. "When I began college in my home town of Wahoo, Nebraska, at Luther College in 1953, I had a blind professor by the name of Iverne Dowie who taught modern history. He had a PhD from the University of Minnesota, knew exactly who was in class, what each student was going, even though he could not see." A 1913 Kansas City Veterinary College graduate from Howard's home town later wrote a letter of recommendation for his admission to KSU. This letter in and of itself is now considered historically relevant, as a link to a past where veterinary medicine was in its infancy, with academic credentials not yet harmonized throughout the country.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
So now we're not only talking about the fascinating history behind the science of veterinary medicine itself but also how the profession developed and grew in its legitimacy within the United States. Now we're getting into the good stuff.
Kansas City Veterinary College ambulance, credit: C. Trenton Boyd Collection
Unfortunately, most of this good stuff hasn't survived time. Relics are lost. Documents destroyed. And, of course, people die. "There were many early private schools of veterinary medicine that we know little about, have no photographs of their buildings or of their graduates," says Howard. "We also know very little of some of the early graduates." Many libraries and museums have little interest in keeping such artifacts.

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for AVMHS and for other international veterinary historical societies: finding, achiving, and maintaining artifacts. After all, doesn't history lose some relevancy if you have nothing to show for it?

Although the AVMHS itself does not have its own museum, it has a brochure and listing outlining various farm and agricultural museums around the U.S. that have veterinary history displays.
Instead of pining for a museum that AVMHS could call home, Howard himself is extremely practical in his hopes for the future. "We would like to see an increase in the membership in the AVMHS and greater visibility within the AVMA [American Veterinary Medical Association]." The fact that life is so damn tech-y these days also isn't lost on these history buffs. Antiquated Luddites they are not. "We need a better website," Howard admits.

What AVMHS does have is gifted, passionate people both as members and on the board. AVMHS produces a regular newsletter, publishes a research journal called Veterinary Heritage (which is a delightful read and edited by the very same David J. Williams we met at the start of this blog), and holds annual meetings that jive with the location of the annual AVMA convention (Boston this summer) so really, you guys, there's no excuse not to check them out.

On a side note, Howard will be presenting a paper at the AVMHS meeting in Boston this July on "The History of George Dadd, the Boston Veterinary Institute, and Early Presidents of the United States Veterinary Medical Association." Dadd was a veterinarian and author of The Theory and Practice of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
Of course, the U.S. isn't the only country to have an organized society devoted to veterinary medical history. England, Germany, and Turkey are other nations that Howard lists that have strong societies and there's even a World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine. After all, the very first veterinary colleges were born in Europe.

The National Veterinary School of Lyon, France
But at the end of the day, AVMHS holds its own. "I think the AVMHS is one of the strongest veterinary medical history societies in the world," Howard says. Totally.

Stay tuned: next VetWrite blog is up Monday, May 18.

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