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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Edgar Sawtelle, Dr. Mark Morris and a Dog named Buddy

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted June 21, 2012

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

When a friend gave me the book, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, she told me it was a story of farm life, a veterinarian, and the special bond that unites a boy with his dogs. Oh yes, and a murder or two! What Julie Kumble allowed me to discover on my own was that it also contained hidden references to one of Cornell University's most famous veterinary graduates, Dr. Mark Morris, Sr., and the beginning of prescription pet food formulations. 

Cover of David Wroblewski's novel,
"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle".

Photo by Dr. Smith.
Edgar Sawtelle is a fascinating novel about a multi-generation farm family and their exceptional kennel of breeding dogs. While investigating events surrounding the suspicious death of his father, young Edgar Sawtelle discovers letters written in 1934 by his late grandfather to a man named Brooks, one of the original breeders of seeing eye dogs in Morristown, New Jersey. His most famous guide dog was a German Shepherd named Buddy.

Author David Wroblewski doesn't tell us about the more far-reaching contribution of Buddy. That is his role in the development of the pet food industry in general, and prescription diets, in particular. Here is the "rest of the story."

An advanced-standing transfer student from the midwest arrived at Cornell University in the fall of 1925 and the following spring he received his DVM. Two years later, Mark Morris, Sr., established Raritan Hospital for Animals in Edison, N.J., one of the first small animal practices in the country.

Dr. Morris was convinced that proper nutrition was essential to pet health. At that time, Buddy was the guide dog of a blind man, Morris Frank, and they were touring the country by train to demonstrate the impact that a seeing eye dog could have by allowing a blind person to navigate independently, safely and with dignity. When Buddy's life was threatened by kidney disease, Dr. Morris was consulted and he formulated a unique specialty diet that slowed the progression of the renal failure. Buddy's life was prolonged and he and Mr. Frank were able to continue their travels about the country spreading the good news of dogs as companions for the blind.

Dr. Mark Morris, Sr., Cornell DVM 1926
Photo from Hill's Pet Nutrition
The special dog food was initially mailed as needed to Mr. Frank in glass jars, but the jars often broke in transit. "Frank arranged for delivery of several thousand cans to Dr. Morris as well as a hand operating canning machine."(1)  Morris and his wife initially processed the canned food in their own home and sent it to Frank and Buddy wherever they were traveling. Meanwhile everywhere they went throughout the country, they were telling people of the miraculous food developed by Dr. Morris back in New Jersey.(2) Morris' fame spread and the prescription pet food industry was born. His 'kidney diet' was appropriately named Canine k/d®, and was licensed to Hill's Packing Company (now Hill's Pet Nutrition) to produce what soon became a growing line of pet prescription formula diets.

With the royalties from the sale of these diets, Mark Morris established a foundation dedicated to animal health and well-being. Morris Animal Foundation is now the largest organization in the world that invests in research that will advance veterinary medicine and improve the quality of life for companion animals, horses and wildlife.

2. Personal Conversation between Dr. Mark Morris, Jr. and the author, Cornell University, circa 1995.

Dr. Smith thanks Julie Kumble for sharing the Sawtelle book. She is director of grants and programs at the Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts, and the aunt of a member of Cornell's DVM Class of 2015.
The author invites comments at