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Friday, January 13, 2012

Tuskegee University's Distinctive School of Veterinary Medicine

Posted January 13, 2012 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)
Donald F. Smith, Cornell University

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

The first and only veterinary school at an historic Black college was established in the post WWII period at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. From its humble beginnings under the inspiration of Frederick Douglass Patterson, veterinarian and third president of Tuskegee, the school has had a distinguished history of educating young African-Americans and others for the past seven decades.

Patterson was orphaned at an early age and separated from his family except for an older sister who raised and supported him though his early life and schooling. He had the good fortune to attend Iowa State University, where he received his DVM in 1923 and his M.S. three years later. He then joined the faculty of Tuskegee Institute at a time when the South was transitioning from plantation living where the principal crop was cotton, to livestock production. The need for veterinarians became more acute as farmers were poorly equipped to raise cattle and other livestock.

Tuskegee University veterinary students
examine a dog (above) and assist during
operation of canine patient (below).
Photos provided by Tuskegee University
School of Veterinary Medicine
Though some of the northern veterinary colleges, in particular, Kansas State and Ohio State Universities, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, had educated African-American students before 1940, the numbers were small (fewer than 70). The southern veterinary colleges, where most of the aspiring Black students lived, were segregated. As the northern colleges became more pressed to admit students from their states, there were few places for African-Americans students to receive the DVM degree.

Dr. Patterson was sent to Cornell for further graduate training. Shortly after returning with his PhD, he was named the third president of Tuskegee.

A bold and visionary leader, President Patterson lobbied successfully from the state of Alabama for a new program in veterinary medicine. Using that modest public support as well as student labor, the college opened in 1945 with the expectation that it would become a regional center where Blacks could study veterinary medicine.

Patterson’s early faculty were led by Dr. Edward B. Evans, who became the founding dean. Several faculty traveled to northern schools like Cornell and Iowa State University for graduate degrees in their early years. This was essential to establish credible teaching and research programs and to eventually achieve accreditation by the American Veterinary Medical Association.

President Patterson's legacy extended to other fields as he encouraged African-Americans to pursue higher education. Historically, he is best known as the leader who established the United Negro College Fund. He also supported the establishment of the famed Tuskegee Airmen program .

Tuskegee’s School of Veterinary Medicine currently enrolls approximately 70 DVM students in each class. Two of the current deans of other U.S. veterinary colleges are Tuskegee graduates: Willie Reed '78 (Purdue University) and Phillip Nelson '79 (Western University of the Health Sciences). Dr. Michael Blackwell '75 served as chief of staff for the surgeon general of the U.S. (1999-2000) and also dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (2000-2008).

Tsegaye Habtemariam, DVM, MPVM, PhD
Dean, Tuskegee University 
College of Veterinary Medicine,
Nursing and Allied Health 
All photos provided by Tuskegee University

Most Tuskegee graduates practice east of the Mississippi, though only 7% live in Alabama. Fifty percent reside in states adjacent to Alabama (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky); and another 10% practice in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Other notable Tuskegee veterinary graduates include Dr. Harold Davis '76, past president of the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and former VP, Amgen, Inc., and Dr. Matthew Jenkins '57, former practitioner in California and former member of Tuskegee’s Board of Trustees. Dr. and Mrs. Roberta Jenkins are generous supporters of Tuskegee’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Smith invites comments at