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Monday, June 25, 2012

Veterinary Medicine in the Post Land-Grant Era

By Donald F. Smith DVM, Cornell University
Posted June 25, 2012

I seldom use this blog as a forum to share personal opinions. This posting is an exception, however, and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of Cornell University or the AVMA. Comments are welcome on this blog or by writing me at

         A century ago, there were three types of veterinary colleges. The majority were for-profit schools of varying quality, located in major cities with their focus on horses. These schools could not be sustained past the 1920s because of decreased enrollment when the horse lost its dominance to the internal combustion engine. An additional factor in their demise was the increased scrutiny given private, for profit medical and veterinary schools as the professions improved their regulatory standards. 
         A small handful of veterinary programs were affiliated with their respective medical schools, for example, those at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, NYU and George Washington University. Only Penn survived. 
         The third type of veterinary college was part of the land-grant initiative. Established in response to the Morrill Act of 1862, land-grant institutions (one per state or territory and mostly located in towns or small cities) were designed to provide practical education for rural youth in agriculture, engineering and the sciences. Starting with Cornell University in 1868, veterinary programs developed at nine land grant universities in the next few decades. Iowa State University became the first public-funded (land-grant) veterinary college in 1879. 
         Another cluster of land-grant veterinary colleges was established in the post World War II era, and a final cluster in the 1970s. Like the early veterinary schools, most of these later colleges were also located in smaller communities apart from major medical schools. In some states, the colleges were located in towns without major transportation hubs. The agricultural lobby was often the dominant political force in justifying the new veterinary college and all but four of the current 28 veterinary colleges are located at land-grant universities. There is also an imbalance favoring locations of colleges in the Midwest and southern states compared to the most populous areas of the country.  Unlike major medical schools which are most prevalent in large metropolitan areas, only two veterinary colleges (Penn and the Ohio State) are located in the 40 most populous U.S. cities.
         In the early 20th century, it could be said that the land-grant system saved veterinary medicine. Without the emphasis on livestock and food production, as well as having state governments providing core financial support, veterinary medicine might otherwise have floundered as the horse lost its central role in transportation and industry. 
         However, in today's world, I believe that the dominance of the land grant system in veterinary education represents a serious challenge for our profession's sustainability. Starting in the years following the Great Depression, migration from rural to urban and suburban areas was accompanied by a massive growth in numbers of household pets and other companion animals. Meanwhile, livestock production was concentrated on larger agricultural units requiring veterinarians.  Today, fewer than 10% of veterinarians work with livestock or the food production systems. About 80% of veterinarians in private practice work with household pets. Another 10% work with horses, zoo animals, wildlife and laboratory animals. 

Beau is an important member of our family.
 Good nutrition, twice-daily scheduled exercise without fail, 

and quality veterinary medical care have given him health and mobility in his 16th year of life.
Photo by the author in 2007.

         Despite the dramatic expansion of the mission of veterinary medicine, state support for veterinary colleges is still largely defined based upon the needs for livestock and safe food production. While these remain a fundamental responsibility of veterinarians, they do not address adequately the larger and more diverse missions of veterinary medicine, especially the role of healthy and well-adjusted pets in supporting human health and well-being.
         To assure sustainability of veterinary colleges in the present era, we need to embrace enthusiastically the role that veterinarians play in an expanded family profile that often includes pets. In responding to this opportunity, we must adapt a bold new approach for public funding that emphasizes the role of veterinarians as critical members of the medical health community. This includes the veterinarians' role in public health and the prevention and control of diseases that are transmitted from animals to people. But it also needs to acknowledge the role of household pets and other companion animals in promoting both physical and emotional health of people at all stages of life. 
         In practical terms, the public funding of veterinary colleges should be broadened and not remain solely the provenance of departments of agriculture.

Dr. Smith invites comments at