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Monday, February 28, 2011

BLACK HISTORY MONTH: A Tribute to Daniel Skelton, DVM, Cornell 1939

By Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University
Posted February 28, 2011



This historical blog is in recognition of the 150th anniversary 
of the American Veterinary Medical Association (1863-2013).



Dr. Daniel Skelton, DVM
Photo by Cornell University
As Black History Month comes to an official close for 2011, I wish to recognize Dr. Daniel Skelton, who died earlier this month at age 98. He is believed to have been the last surviving African-American veterinarian to have received his education during the Great Depression.

Daniel was born in Tennessee on September 10, 1912. He attended undergraduate college at LeMoyne College in Memphis, one of the Historic Black Colleges, majoring in chemistry and biology. Seeing his interest in medicine and animals, university president Frank Sweeney encouraged him to become a veterinarian. However, with no veterinary colleges available to him in the segregated south, President Sweeney suggested he move to New York to establish residency and then apply to Cornell.

Dr. Skelton described what happened next during my 2008 interview with him, I graduated on a Tuesday night [in 1934], then Mrs. Sweeney took me directly to the train station and I was washing dishes in Brooklyn 48 hours later. I wrote to Cornell’s veterinary college, but was rejected. I applied two more times, but to no avail. Discouraged, I called President Sweeney. “Don’t do anything”, he told me, “I will look after it”. Within a week, I was accepted.

Dan was a popular and well-respected student among the 40 members of the Class of 1939. After graduation, he joined the federal food inspection service and was assigned to a meat packing plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was a small town, mostly white, and the people referred to me as a ‘fly in cream’. After 18 months, I was promoted to supervisor over the objection of some of my colleagues. One of the workers in another part of the plant said to his buddy who was assigned to me, making sure I heard his comment, “How do you like a N____ supervising you? What is the world coming to?

Dr. Skelton was transferred to Wichita, Kansas, in 1942. Though still a segregated community, he and his wife were much happier living in the larger city and they remained there for the rest of his career. He eventually became circuit supervisor, responsible for food safety at 22 packing houses and supervising veterinary inspectors throughout central Kansas.

Fewer than 70 African-Americans received DVM degrees from northern schools before a veterinary college was established at Tuskegee Institute in 1945. Several of these early graduates, and also many of the graduates from Tuskegee during the 1950s and 1960s, worked in the federal meat inspection service. Their legacy in helping assure a safe supply of food to the American public (and also the military) is an important aspect of African-American veterinary history.

Dr. Skelton was an important part of that legacy. The transcript from my interview with him, including a decription of his student experiences at Cornell and his family history may be found at  http://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/bitstream/1813/14963/4/Skelton%20Daniel%20'39%20BioInt.pdf.

Dr. Smith invites comments at dfs6@cornell.edu.

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