Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, Water for Elephants, opens as 93-year-old Jacob Jankowski, sits dejected in an assisted living home, verbally sparring with a retired lawyer. As the story flashes back to 1931, we learn that veterinary student Jankowski is about to take his final exams at Cornell University when his parents are killed in an auto accident. Jacob is disconsolate because his father―also a veterinarian―had mortgaged his practice to pay the Ivy League tuition. He abandons Cornell and joins the circus.
Centenarian Dr. Lawrence Waitz is a real member of the Veterinary Class of ’31. He graduated along with 35 other men―sorry, there were no women in the class like the sensuous Catherine who sat beside Jacob with her thighs provocatively touching his―and began his practice on Long Island in the depths of the Depression. Dr. Waitz settled in Hempstead from which he could drive in all directions to riding academies, stables and dairy farms.
Classmate Arthur Fredericks started a practice in Northport, also on Long Island. He spent his early years as a farm veterinarian, traveling on dirt roads to treat all kinds of animals. Penicillin was still not invented and wooden crates were used to house pets who were mostly fed table scraps. Dr. Fredericks built the North Shore Animal Hospital that has remained in the family through his son and grandson, also veterinarians.
The longest practicing veterinarian from the class was Dr. Elmer Woelffer, who was a cattle expert in the Wisconsin town of Oconomowoc. Even in his 80s, he had a loyal following of dairymen who valued his brilliant understanding of bovine medicine.
Colonel William E. Jennings was perhaps the most famous member of the class. After a distinguished military career in the China-Burma-India theater of WW II, he served in leadership positions in the Office of the Surgeon General and was chief veterinarian for U.S. forces in Europe during the height of the cold war. He later taught at three universities, including Cornell. Jennings Hall at Fort Sam Houston was dedicated in his honor following his death in 2003.
Sara Gruen's book is an enjoyable read. However, a few real life facts known by Cornell alumni and their families were modified for the story. For example, New York residents like Jankowski paid no tuition, the curriculum was four years long (not six), and most veterinary students weren't housed in dorms but lived cheaply in single rooms adjacent to campus for $5 a month.
More on the exceptional lives and challenges of veterinarians during the Depresssion can be found at www.vet.cornell.edu/legacy. A contemporary interview with 1931 graduate Dr. Waitz can be found at http://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/12879/1/Waitz,%20Lawrence%20T.%20'34%20BioInt.pdf
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