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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Water For Elephants Trumpets Cornell

Posted by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
April 26, 2011

A half century ago, Norman Rockwell painted an image of a young veterinarian examining a little boy’s dog. Partly obscured in the background is a Cornell University diploma. The year, 1963, was the centennial of the American Veterinary Medical Association. On the threshold of the AVMA’s 150th anniversary, another veterinary image has emerged in American pop culture and, once again, Cornell University is featured.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Photo provided by Cornell.
 The movie, Water for Elephants, depicts a 1931 Cornell veterinary student who runs away during his final exams because of a family tragedy. Jacob Jankowski hops a circus train and claims to be a veterinarian. His prime charge was an Asian elephant named Rosie.

The movie follows Sara Gruen’s novel by the same title, including about 20 direct references to Cornell University and the Ivy League. For Cornellians everywhere―and especially for the 4,000 DVMs scattered across the country and around the world―there is great pride in seeing our college depicted on the big screen.

But how accurate is that depiction?  The following questions should test your knowledge of veterinary medicine at Cornell during the Depression. (Answers follow)

1.   Jacob Jankowski was forced to leave Cornell because his father (also a veterinarian) had mortgaged the family business to pay for his son’s tuition. How much was tuition during the Depression?
2.   How many women were in Jacob’s class? The movie highlights one who sits next to Jacob during his final examination, and appears to depict at least one other. In the novel, author Sara Gruen says there were four.
3.   A picture was seen for a fleeting second on the wall of the examination room when Jacob was leaving the room to learn of his parents’ death?  Was it the portrait of university founder Ezra Cornell or President Herbert Hoover?
4.   Did it take six years to become a veterinarian?
5.   Is the movie correct in describing the veterinary degree as Doctor of Veterinary Science?
6.   When did Cornell become part of the Ivy League?
7.   Would Jacob have lived with his parents while attending college?
1.   Because of the land grant agreement, there was no tuition for New York State students until the 1960s. This challenges the movie’s central premise that the Jankowski family lost everything because of tuition payments?
2.   Though Cornell’s first woman veterinarian graduated in 1910, most classes in the next 30 years -- including Jacob's class -- had none. The Class of 1940 was the first to have four women.
3.   Though not an exact depiction, it appears to be an image of the veterinary college’s first professor and dean (principal), James Law.
4.   It did not: four years after high school was the prescribed length at that time. The youngest member of the Class of 1931 was the recently deceased Dr. Lawrence Waitz. He entered Cornell at age 16 and graduated at 20.
5.   Except for the period before 1896 when the degree was Bachelor of Veterinary Science (in the British tradition), the Cornell veterinary degree has always been Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.
6.   The Ivy League was not established until 1954.
7.   Almost certainly not. Most students were poor, living in modest single rooms near campus.
Enjoy the movie!
Dr. Smith welcomes comments at