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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Joanna Asmus Sutorius, DVM (1929), Cornell's Fourth Woman Veterinary Graduate

Guest Blog by Michelle Pesce, Cornell Class of 2012
Posted May 25, 2011

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

Careers for Veterinarians Series

Like many young girls, Johanna Asmus took delight in the company of animals. She was a member of the Science Club at Ithaca High School and the idea of becoming a veterinarian had great appeal to her. Her proximity to Cornell, where her father was a professor, likely influenced her decision to pursue an education there. Being granted admission to Cornell is no simple task for prospective veterinary students today, but Johanna faced an even greater challenge. The year was 1925, and Johanna was to become only the fourth female graduate of the New York State Veterinary College (now the College of Veterinary Medicine).

Joanna Asmus Sutorius, DVM, graduation photograph 1929 (Cornell University photo)
Johanna’s father, Henry Asmus, was no ordinary professor. In 1913, he took a position as a farriery instructor at the veterinary college. A building had been newly constructed for his students, and was “the very finest place of its kind to be found in the country;” a country where horses were still the dominant form of transportation. A preeminent farrier until his death in 1939, Henry Asmus’ horseshoes still hang on display in Cornell’s current farrier shop.

Cornell's DVM Class of 1929 with photo (bottom center) of Joanna Asmus, the college's fourth woman graduate. Cornell University photo.
Johanna began veterinary college immediately after completing high school, as was the norm for students in 1925. Johanna’s daughter, Barbara Sutorius, explains her focus on small animal medicine. “The farmers who provided the large animals for the student vets to practice on wouldn’t let her treat their animals, so she only worked with small animals.” When her daughters inquired as to whether she faced discrimination, Dr. Sutorius denied it was ever a significant issue. “She was determined to ‘show the fellows’ that she could do it,” said her niece, Marianne Leavitt. In a 1960 interview by The Post-Standard, a Syracuse newspaper, Dr. Sutorius admitted she encountered disbelievers early on, but “after they found out I meant to stay and get my degree, the boys made things pleasant for me.” Johanna spent the summer of 1928 at the Westminster Dog Hospital on West 54th Street in New York City. Drs. Frank Miller and Trelford Miller welcomed her help that summer, with the latter making reference to the fact he was a student of Henry Asmus.

Dr. Sutorius considered continuing her studies in Vienna following completion of the DVM program in 1929, but it was not to be. She moved to Sayville, NY that summer with her husband, where he remained employed in spite of the stock market crash and ensuing Great Depression. “It was her aspiration to start her own small animal practice there,” her daughter Nancy Holland explains. “However, she was a product of her times. Because my Dad could provide very well for us, it would have been considered a mark against him to have his wife go off to work.” Dr. Sutorius instead worked as a relief veterinarian in various small animal practices for two years, and resumed this role in full when her three children reached school age.

Thirty years after her graduation, Dr. Sutorius reflected on her experience as one of the first to break ground for women in the veterinary profession. “I enjoy this work, so it doesn’t seem like any effort at all,” she told the Post-Standard interviewer. She had remained active in organized veterinary medicine, taking the position of Secretary-Treasurer of the Long Island Veterinary Medical Association in 1947.

Since Dr. Sutorius began her schooling, much had changed for women in the profession. “There are about 200 women veterinarians in the country,” she stated in the 1960 article. “Some are in general practice, others teach and work in research. One woman works in a zoo. Most people are pleased that a woman is going to treat their pet; however, I have had people turn around and walk right out of the office!”

By the conclusion of Dr. Sutorius’ career, veterinary medicine had seen a sharp increase in the proportion of female students. At the time of her death in 1989, roughly half of all graduating veterinarians in the United States and Canada were women.

In recent years, Dr. Sutorius’ family took a renewed interest in her experiences in the veterinary profession. A visit to Cornell revealed Henry Asmus’ influence on the college, as evidenced by display cases featuring his work. While no physical monument exists to commemorate Dr. Sutorius and other early female veterinarians, the conspicuous abundance of women in the college is a compelling testament to their efforts as pioneers.

Author Michelle Pesce, Cornell's DVM Class of 2012, is from Massapequa on the southern shore of Long Island. Dr. Asmus Sutorius also lived and practiced on Long Island.

Michelle expresses appreciation to Dr. Sutorius' family -- her daughters, Mrs. Nancy Holland and Sister Barbara Sutorius, and her niece, Mrs. Marianne Leavitt -- for their contributions to this article.