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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Veterinarians World-Wide Mourn the Passing of Dr. Robert W. Kirk

by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University.
Posted January 20, 2011

Dr. Robert W. Kirk, professor emeritus of medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, died yesterday (January 19th) in Ithaca.

A 1946 graduate of Cornell, Dr. Kirk was one of the most accomplished clinical veterinarians, authors and educators of the 20th century. His knowledge of general small animal medicine was established through several years in private practice, then honed in his three decades of advanced medical practice, including dermatology, at Cornell University.

When he retired in 1985, he was one of the most decorated and widely-known small animal veterinarians in the world. Among his many accomplishments was his famous book, Current Veterinary Therapy, which he edited by himself through its first ten editions. This series of books has sold more than a quarter of a million copies and has been translated into many languages. As a student, I studied from the fourth edition that my friends and I simply knew as Kirk.

Dr. Robert W. Kirk
 by Cayuga Lake, 2009
Photo by the author.
 A native of Stamford, Connecticut, Dr. Kirk came to Cornell in 1943 intent on becoming a large animal veterinarian. The draw of pet medicine intrigued him, though, and he worked in mixed practices as well as the ASPCA in New York City after graduation.

Upon the retirement of Professor Hadley Stevenson ’20, Kirk was recruited in 1952 to join surgeon Ellis Leonard ’34 in ushering in a new age of pet health care at Cornell. It was also the era when vaccines against scourges like canine distemper were being developed by James Baker and his colleagues at the new viral disease laboratory.

Kirk was both professor and practitioner. He insisted on the highest quality of medicine but always with a view to practicality and service. The quintessential professional, his white coat and bow tie were his sartorial trademark. In reflecting on the impact of Dr. Kirk on his own career, Dean Michael Lorenz of Oklahoma State University wrote in an e-mail today, “His influence on my career was enormous. I still model Bob’s behavior including always wearing that starched white coat in the hospital”.  

Dr. Kirk had an enormous impact on the development of small animal medicine. He was a founding member of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, and also the specialty of veterinary dermatology. His students and residents populated some of the most important university hospitals and private practices in the country.

His international reach was equally impressive.  Dr. Gen Kato, a small animal practitioner in Japan, bought a copy of the third edition of Current Veterinary Therapy in the early 1970s. “I was so enthralled with the whole new world of medical information that I couldn’t sleep for days, until I finished reading the entire book”. At the urging of his colleagues, Dr. Kato translated the entire book in Japanese. It sold an amazing 2,000 copies, and he subsequently translated later editions. Dr. Kato still refers Dr. Kirk as the father of Japanese small animal medicine.
Upon hearing the news of his death, one of Dr. Kirk’s more recent students, Dr. Mitch Kornet ’79 of Mid Island Animal Hospital, expressed how many of us feel, “He had a profound impact on my career. We all learned so much about dermatology and medicine from him, but I think the most important thing he taught was professionalism. The image of veterinarians was so important to Dr. Kirk and it made a huge impression on me.”

Predeceased by his wife, Helen, Dr. Kirk leaves three daughters and an extended family.

A Memorial Service for Dr. Kirk will be held at 2:00 pm on Sunday, January 23rd, at the First Congregational Church, 309 Highland Avenue, Ithaca, NY

Dr. Smith invites comments and tributes to Dr. Kirk at