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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