Monday, November 2, 2015

Capturing many a veterinary legacy

This fall I had the opportunity to speak with an impressive member of the veterinary community--Dr. Don Smith--and I'm very excited to share with you one of his many projects. Don, large animal surgeon, dean emeritus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, author, and veterinary history enthusiast, is the creator of a fascinating collection of interviews of veterinarians who attended vet school during some of the most challenging times of modern US history, most notably the Great Depression. These interviews, both in written form and available as audio files, are available on Cornell's website. The collection is called Enduring Legacy. Here's what Don had to say about how this project came to be, his interview process, and what he's learned from talking to some amazing veterinarians.

Despite modest ambitions of wanting to be a dairy practitioner, Don wound up a large animal surgeon. Then, after following the winding road of professionalism, Don eventually held a deanship at Cornell from 1997 to 2007. After this, Don found himself at a crossroads.

"I was too young to retire but didn't want to continue with administration," he says. "I didn't know what to do so I packed my dog into a Jeep and I went to Alaska along the back roads. I used that time to decide what I didn't want to do as well as to some extent what I did want to do."
Beau, Don's Cocker Spaniel who accompanied him to Alaska and back.
Don had been introduced to the concept of helping record the history of individuals who were veterinarians in the early part of the 21st century. The element of time passing--these individuals were not going to be around within the next 20 years--was palpable and when Don returned from his trip in Alaska, "I decided to meet and record these life stories of as many veterinarians who were educated in the 1930s as possible," he says. "So, I traveled around the country and interviewed them. I did Cornell graduates first, and then I was encouraged to interview younger people who had graduated in the 1940s, and then interview some from other schools as well."
Dr. Andre Moul Ross, the only female member of the Cornell veterinary class of 1943.
Don has conducted hundreds of interviews, not just for the Enduring Legacy project, but also for other books and blogs. I was curious to learn about Don's interview technique and perhaps gain a few hints for myself.

Primarily, Don states an axiom that should be remembered by anyone who ever conducts any interview, for whatever reason (this can even apply to vets getting a decent case history on a patient!): "When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias. You're hearing the way they remember, or more specifically, how they want their history to be remembered on their behalf. They will tell you things they want you to know and in the process, perhaps, they don't tell you certain things or there are certain errors. Therefore, you have to get at the facts. In order to interview someone, you have to do research."

"When you interview somebody, you're hearing a bias."

Don describes his process of triangulating a story: hearing something during an interview then corroborating those statements with interviews from other sources and facts collected elsewhere. Another concept Don used to make his Enduring Legacy interviews stand out as unique collections of veterinary history is who he talked to. "Most people, when they want to know about the history of veterinary medicine, they go to the faculty and ask them what it was like to be a faculty member," he says. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to find out about the real people in the real world under real circumstances. I wanted to explore their history."

As far as interview techniques, Don cuts to the chase: "Don't ask the obvious questions." Don likens a good interview to allowing the interviewee to demonstrate leadership. "You have to create instability and let leadership come through. People are great leaders but they too often will not find leadership unless they are put in an unstable situation and they have to demonstrate how to move society forward. So I try to use that same context within my interview style."

"Don't ask the obvious questions. Create instability and let leadership come through."

I asked Don what his most memorable interviews were during his time putting together Enduring Legacy. Without hesitation, Don stated that the class of 1939 at Cornell was probably the most extraordinary class to have gone through veterinary college anywhere. "The reasons for this were because of the diversity in the class and the challenges of the Depression," he says. "The challenges of that era were just extraordinary but it allowed the students to become friends, not just colleagues, with people who were very different."

Don describes this class as one containing "three women, a Chinese man, a Canadian who didn't know how old he was, an African American from Memphis, some Catholics who were discriminated against back then, and some Jewish people."

The relationships and bonds formed in this vet school class have left a huge impression on Don. "A Jewish man from Brooklyn and a Catholic man from southern New York became the very best of friends," he says. "Never once during these interviews did I ever hear anyone say anything negative about anyone."

Take some time to explore the interviews captured over at Enduring Legacy--the audio files are so rich with memory and emotion you'll easily find yourself rooting for those who, at immense odds, fulfilled their professional ambitions.

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