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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

White Coat Ceremony at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine

Posted November 29, 2011
by Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University

Cornell’s 8th annual White Coat Ceremony for third-year veterinary medical students is Saturday, December 3. The concept of the “white coat” donning for medical students was inaugurated at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and shortly thereafter adapted for veterinary students at Washington State University.

Cornell adapted the practice in 2004, but with a twist. Instead of holding the ceremony at the beginning of the four-year curriculum, we decided to mark students’ transition from the preclinical to their clinical education as they began their hospital rotations.

Canada honored Sir William Osler in 1969
on the 50th anniversary of his death with this
commemorative postage stamp.
Photo by author.
Historically, both medical and veterinary students were largely “book taught” until about 100 years ago when the curriculum was expanded to include one or two years of clinical education in the hospital ward (or at the farm or stable). Dr. William Osler, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical School but who had previously worked at McGill University’s veterinary college, is credited with being the first medical school professor to bring students out of the lecture hall into the wards.

Osler observed, “He [or she] who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all”. “Listen to your patients”, he would tell his medical students, “he [or she] is telling you the diagnosis.”

Cornell professor Dr. William Hornbuckle is the quintessential small animal diagnostician. Like Osler, the respect he has from over four decades of students is legendary. Dr. Hornbuckle is a stickler for getting an exhaustive history from the client. But once that information is gathered, he is adamant that the student "concentrate on the physical examination. Don't get distracted by talking to the client or your colleague for this is your chance to listen to the animal and what it is telling you."

Because the white coat symbolizes the generic and traditional professional attire of the health sciences, we at Cornell decided in conjunction with our alumni executive board (the co-sponsors of the white coat ceremony) to follow the lead of our medical school colleagues. We did this while also recognizing that many veterinarians—large animal and wildlife practitioners, for example—do not typically wear white coats in their practices.

As the veterinarian mentors of the Class of 2013 formally robe or “coat” each student this Saturday, they are following the deep-rooted tradition of veterinary education at Cornell where faculty promote the essential role of patient-oriented learning. It is in the clinical environment—whether the hospital ward, the farm or stable, or the wildlife sanctuary—that observations of both illness and health are embedded in the new veterinarian’s memory, and that textbook knowledge is applied with relevance to the patient.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Veterinarian Frederick Douglass Patterson and the Tuskegee Airmen

Posted Veterans Day, November 11, 2011
by Dr. Donald F. Smith, Cornell University

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

Did you know that the Tuskegee Airmen program was established by a veterinarian? 

I didn’t until last May, when I interviewed Dr. Charles Robinson, the only African-American veterinary student to attend Cornell during the 1940s.

Charles R. Robinson, DVM (Cornell 1944)
and his wife, Yolanda. Picture by author, 2010

Robinson imbued me with a sense of wonder of the great accomplishments of his former boss, Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson, who served as the third president of Tuskegee Institute (now University).

Frederick Douglass Patterson, DVM, MS, PhD
founder of the Tuskegee Airmen
President of Tuskegee Institute (now University)

Frederick Douglass Patterson (1901-1988) was raised an orphan by his sister who inspired him to get an education. And he did: a DVM and MS from Iowa State University, and a PhD from Cornell. Appointed president of Tuskegee in 1934, he founded the veterinary college (1945) and was the driving force in establishing the United Negro College Fund (1944).

Earlier in his presidency, however, he learned to fly. So committed was he to also providing that opportunity to other young African-Americans, he overcame the political and social impediments of the day―the military was strictly segregated at the time―and won a federal grant to establish a training site to teach young Black men to fly military planes. This gave birth to the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of the World War II U.S. Army Corps.

Nearly half of the Tuskegee Airmen served overseas as combat pilots during World War II. Historical records boast that they were so accomplished pilots that their 1,500 missions were completed with a single lost to enemy planes. The success of the Tuskegee Airmen program is also credited with hastening the eventual desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.
Congressional Medal of Honor

The next time you think about the Tuskegee Airmen, give credit to the Iowa State- and Cornell-educated veterinarian, Frederick Douglass Patterson, who had the fortitude and foresight to defy enormous odds and establish one of the most decorated group of pilots of WWII.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

War Horse: Veterinarians Supporting Animal Health in Wartime

Blog by Donald F. Smith, DVM, Cornell University
Posted November 8, 2011, in honor of Veterans Day

Animal lovers are captivated by the elegant puppetry of the Tony award-winning play, War Horse. The turning of the horses’ ears, the movements of their heads and muzzles, the expressiveness of their eyes all lend pure magic to an otherwise serious drama.

Albert is a young British boy who becomes separated from his horse, Joey, when British troops need horses on the fighting fields of France during World War I. Joey is caught in German fire and becomes entangled in barbed wire deliberately set to ensnare the horses. Captured by the enemy, Joey then serves for the German army until he finally ends up in no-man’s land where Albert (now a youthful soldier) is reunited with his injured friend.

Up to six million horses were used in World War I. They carried munitions and pulled heavy artillery and wagons, and conveyed men and supplies. The loss of life from combat injuries was horrendous, but millions more succumbed to disease and starvation. As in the American Civil War, where it is estimated that one million horses and mules died, the tactical value of a horse was sometime considered greater than that of a soldier.

Just as physicians were critical to the health of soldiers, veterinarians were deployed in the war effort to care for horses and other animals. Also like their human medical counterparts, there were veterinarians on both sides of the conflict. This becomes evident in War Horse when the injured Joey is attended to by both English and German veterinarians.

World War I was the last major international conflict in which horses were considered essential to all aspects of the war effort. By the Second World War, horses had been largely replaced by armored vehicles, airplanes and other motorized equipment.

There was at least one major exception, however, and that was the China-Burma-India campaign where both Allied and Japanese forces used mules (U.S.) and horses (Japan) to traverse the almost impenetrable jungles and mountains of Burma.

U.S. veterinarian Dr. Kenneth Gumaer attends to a pack mule
on the trail in Burma, 1944. Photo provided by Dr. Gumaer.
Dr. Gumaer died in 2008 at age 88.
The commitment of both American and Japanese army veterinarians to the health of horses and mules who served in the Burma theater (1941-44) became evident in my interviews with veterinarians from both sides. American veterinarian Kenneth Gumaer spoke of his role in transporting 267 mules in the hold of a ship that left New Orleans in December 1943, was torpedoed off the coast of Florida and endured such heavy seas in the transatlantic crossing that many mules developed massive hematomas. “We only lost one mule in the entire 87-day crossing”, he proudly reported.

Japanese veterinarian Dr. Takehiko Takahashi describes his role in
transporting horses from China to Burma during WWII.
Dr. Takahashi died in 2011 at age 94.
Photo by author, 2010.
Japanese veterinarian, Dr. Takehiko Takahashi, encountered different challenges with his load of horses that left China in 1941. Despite his protests, the ship left port before the horses could be vaccinated, and he recalls another boat chasing them down and hoisting the life-saving anti-Strangles serum onto the deck where he vaccinated the horses in transit. To prevent the animals from succumbing to the sweltering heat and humidity of the ship’s hold as they coursed through the South China Sea, Dr. Takahashi fashioned a series of hoists to periodically raise the horses onto the deck for ventilation and exercise.

Both Drs. Gumaer and Takahashi related the unimaginable horror on the mountainous trails and jungle passages in Burma. Starvation and parasites took huge tolls on the lives of both man and beast. Animals carrying heavy packs sometimes lost their footing on the narrow mountain trails and fell to their death. Many Japanese horses were killed by low level strafing of British aircraft.

By the time the victorious American forces captured the key airfield of Myitkyina from the Japanese in spring 1944, only one-third of the thousands of mules had survived. All of the Japanese horses died.

War Horse is a cogent reminder that the military exploits of warring nations exact an enormous toll on animal life and that the veterinary care for all military animals―it is more likely to be dogs now than horses―is as essential today as it was during conflicts of previous decades.

On Veterans Day, pause to remember the animals that are casualties of mankind's wars. And as the Holiday season approaches, consider seeing the spectacular show, War Horse. It plays at Lincoln Center in New York City.

Dr. Smith invites comments at