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Monday, January 21, 2013

Frederick Douglass Patterson and Tuskegee's School of Veterinary Medicine

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted on January 21, 2013, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

African-American veterinarians have played a special role in animal care and public health since the early days of the profession. The most notable of the approximately 70 African-Americans who received their DVM degrees during the first half of the 20th century is Frederick Douglass Patterson. Orphaned shortly after his birth in 1901 and raised by his sister in Texas, Patterson received his veterinary degree at Iowa State University and later his PhD from Cornell. He became the third president of Tuskegee Institute in 1935 as the south was moving from cotton plantation agriculture to raising livestock.

Overcoming enormous challenges, Patterson developed a veterinary college for African-Americans at a time when higher education in the South was segregated and there were only 12 other veterinary colleges in the country.

To people outside of the veterinary profession, Patterson’s most memorable achievement was organizing fellow Historic Black College presidents to form the United Negro College Fund in 1946. He was also instrumental in establishing the Tuskegee Airman program during his tenure as university president.

Dr. Eugene W. Adams,
Author of "The Legacy"
A History of The Tuskegee University
School of Veterinary Medicine
(Photo by the author, 2012)
Published on the 50th anniversary of veterinary medicine at Tuskegee, Dr. Eugene Adams' definitive historical book, "The Legacy"  describes Patterson's contributions to Tuskegee and to African-American education in general. 

Dr. Adams received his DVM from Kansas State University and his PhD from Cornell. A distinguished pathologist, Adams served on the Tuskegee faculty for almost four decades.

Concern for public health has always been a feature of Tuskegee’s veterinary program, and many of their graduates have had careers in food safety and research. The college is now even closely aligned with human health because of its unique organizational structure that combines Veterinary Medicine as well as Nursing and Allied Health in the same college. Veterinarian Tsegaye Habtemariam, who jointly administers all of these programs, feels that the unified governance facilitates opportunities for advancing the ‘one health’ agenda by which veterinarians can have a stronger role in promoting the health of people as well as animals.

Two current deans of veterinary medicine in the United States are graduates of Tuskegee: Willy Reed (Purdue University) and Phillip Nelson (Western University of the Health Sciences). Along with another alumnus, Michael Blackwell (dean emeritus of the University of Tennessee) and Tuskegee’s current dean, Dr. Habtemarian, these distinguished educators serve as great role models for young African-Americans who aspire to leadership positions in the health professions. 

Sign at the entrance to Moton Field, named after Tuskegee's
second president and made famous by the
Tuskegee Airmen who trained there during World War II.
(Photo by the author, 2012)
Visitors to Tuskegee's campus are deeply moved by symbols of the African-American educational tradition. An inspiring sculpture of founder Booker T. Washington sits beside the campus chapel and is inscribed by the words, "He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry." A few miles from campus is the airfield used by the Tuskegee Airman and made famous by the 2012 movie “Red Tails” and the current off-Broadway play, “Black Angels over Tuskegee".  

For current and future veterinarians of all backgrounds, one cannot consider Tuskegee University or her veterinary graduates without acknowledging the extraordinary legacy of Frederick Douglass Patterson, DVM, PhD, one of the most important veterinarians of the 20th century.

Dr. Smith invites comments at