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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk '46 Salutes the Students Involved in Women's Leadership

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted October 7, 2014

I recently received a hand-written, two-page letter from a veterinarian who graduated from Cornell in 1946.  It was my first communication from Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk since she returned to Cornell for her class reunion eight years ago. That reunion, the only one she ever attended, had been a partial reconciliation visit for Dr. Salk as the memories of her student days at Cornell were not pleasant.

Dr. Syliva Burg Salk, center seating during Class of 1946 reunion, June 1946
Photo by Cornell University

Sylvia Burg was a bright, young Jewish woman who grew up in the small town of Hunter, deep in the Catskill area, 125 miles north of New York City.  Though Cornell had accepted its first woman veterinary student in 1905, and by 1940 had graduated many more women than any other US veterinary college (15), Burg’s first application was denied.

She applied the following year, and was again denied.  Frustrated and angry, Sylvia’s mother traveled to Cornell and met with the dean, Dr. William Arthur Hagan. “I know neither the substance nor the tenor of the conversation,” Dr. Salk told me when I visited her in California in 1999, “but it must have been interesting because I was admitted the following fall on my third attempt.”[i]

Sylvia met her future husband “over a horse carcass during dissection lab.” Herman Salk had been a veterinary student at Middlesex College in Massachusetts, the college established in the mid-1930s, primarily to accommodate Jewish students, but forced to close by the AVMA a few years later because it was alleged to have been substandard. At the time, the feeling of many close to the situation was that the closure of both the Middlesex medical and veterinary colleges was related to anti-Semitism.[ii]  Regardless of the circumstances that sealed their fate, Herman was one of the few students admitted to Cornell as a transfer student to complete his education.

Dr. Herman Maurice Salk, Graduation Photo
Courtesy of Cornell University
Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk, Graduation Photo
Courtesy of Cornell University

The Salks moved to Vermont following graduation and Sylvia became the state’s first female veterinarian. They joined with a classmate named George Brightenback, with Sylvia doing the small animal work while the two men looked after the large animals in the practice. After a brief period in which Herman worked in the virology department of Parke-Davis labs, the Salks moved to a farm in western Pennsylvania where Herman raised laboratory mice for $100 a month. They supplemented their income by operating a small animal practice out of their home using the kitchen table as an operating table.

Those were also the days when Herman's brother, Jonas Salk, was feverishly working at the nearby University of Pittsburgh to develop the polio vaccine that bears his name. The children of the two families grew up together during this period in the early 50s when the vaccine was being developed and tested.

In 1954, Herman and Sylvia left the East, moving to the desert region of California, where they opened a small animal practice.

For a substantial part of their adult lives, however, the Salks did humanitarian and veterinary work in developing cultures. Their international involvement began in the late ‘60s when they hosted African exchange students in their home. A decade later, their son, Steven (a veterinary graduate from UC, Davis) worked with the Masai tribe through the USAID program. Sylvia visited him in 1975, and was so moved by the need amongst the Masai that she convinced her husband to make their ultimate career move.

Answering an advertisement in the AVMA journal to work with Heifer Project International, the Salks sold their practice and started a new chapter of their life. They spent the next several years on a series of tours of duty, working in Africa (Cameroon and Egypt) and in the Far East (Thailand, China and Laos). When they returned to the US, they worked in the Southwest with the Navajo and Hopi nations.

Their experiences were remarkable, Dr. Sylvia Salk told me.

We lived under challenging conditions, but our work was satisfying. We taught vaccination strategies, production medicine, nutrition and management. We tried to leave places better than we found them.

In 1990, four and a half decades after she left Cornell, Dr. Sylvia Salk enrolled in a MS program in international public health at Loma Linda University.  As the only veterinarian in the class—and certainly having the most abundant world experience—she was able to bring a broad perspective to the program, especially in the area of zoonotic diseases. For example, she reminded faculty and students alike to check cattle for scabies while visiting villagers for the same condition.  She also described the efficiency of management opportunities, describing techniques for raising ducks and pigs over the village fish pond.

One of the Salks’ many legacies is a scholarship program they established in the late ‘70s that provided funding for African students to come to the US for college education in the health sciences, education or agriculture. Dozens of students benefitted from the program, including a young Masai woman who became the first woman from her tribe to pursue an advanced degree.

Returning to that letter I received from Dr. Salk on September 9th, she said how happy she was to read the current issue of “Scopes,” the college newsletter in which she learned of the Cornell students establishing a chapter of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative. 

She was excited that things had changed from when she had been a student. I could sense her pride in being one of the survivors from very challenging era in our history, and contrasting her experiences with the changes that we see today.[iii] 

Reading about the student chapter of the Women’s Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative restored a feeling of pride in Cornell that I had lost many years ago when I was a student in the early ‘40s. Both my husband, Herman, and I felt disenfranchised. As the years went by … we never truly reconciled with our Alma mater.…

Now that I’m in my 91st year, I fully admire what you and Cornell are doing. Thank you for your dedication to a long-neglected phase of Cornell history.

One of the challenges we face in researching and teaching the history of veterinary medicine is that we tend to see the profession in the context of our own times. How soon we forget what it was like only two or three generations ago. Viewing the transformation of the profession across decades of time is important, however, and we must not too easily dismiss the experiences of those whose persistence and success despite tough odds have helped shape the opportunities we have today. 

Especially for the women such as Dr. Sylvia Burg Salk, to whom we owe so much.

[i] Salk, Sylvia Burg (DVM 1946). Interview with Donald F. Smith (Cornell University) in Palm Springs, California, 1999.
[ii] Smith, Donald F.  Middlesex Veterinary College: A Short-Lived Experiment in Meritocracy. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine. October 24, 2013.
[iii] Salk, Sylvia Burg (DVM 1946). Letter to Donald F. Smith (Cornell University) Sept 9, 2014.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Unexpected Encounter with a Mentor

By Donald F. Smith
Posted Sept 30, 2014

In a previous blog, I described how the art form and interpretation of the Bach fugue by 20th century pianist, Glenn Gould, shaped the fluency of my operative technique during my early career a large animal surgeon.[1] While serving as veterinary dean at Cornell later in my career, I adopted the fugal form as the defining organizational structure for chairs of our academic departments, referring to it as contrapuntal management.[2]

Though Gould died three decades ago, the impact of his interpretation of Bach had a profound impact on me as a surgeon and administrator. That influence continues even now in my return to the classroom as a teacher working in small tutorial groups.

Three weeks ago, while waiting at the gate at O’Hare for a flight to Des Moines, I had a chance encounter with another person who has had a major influence on my work. George Will, the Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist, author and political philosopher was awaiting the same flight. Though I am not one to engage luminaries just because they occupy the same air space, my reaction to seeing Will was spontaneous and immediate: I wanted to meet him. 

George Will, columnist, author, political philosopher
Photo by the author, 2014

I have been reading assiduously Will’s works for years. What I consider to be a scholarly approach to articulating his views on the political, social and cultural news of the day is what initially drew me to him. The form of his arguments, while concise and clear in their own right, are also draped in a multi-colored fabric of words complex enough to command attention.

During the 1980s, I became so fond of his work that I even held a subscription to Newsweek just to have access to his biweekly columns. More recently, I read his column in the Washington Post and watch him as regularly as I am able, alongside Mara Liasson, Charles Krauthammer and others, on Special Report w/ Bret Baier.[3]

During the last couple of years, the columns I share in this blog and my occasionally-invited lectures have become more firmly rooted in the historic underpinnings of veterinary medicine and One Health.  And whether it’s by deliberate design or simply by osmosis from people I admire, I have occasionally found myself using the format so often evident in Will’s columns or commentary, in which he frequently presents his thesis in an historical context.

In this age where the prominence of mentor-guided development is considered a sine qua non for professional advancement, it begs the question: can we be mentored by someone whom we have never encountered personally, nor only met in passing?  More on that in a future column.

As I approached George Will that recent afternoon in Chicago, I just wanted to tell him, “I’m a fan.”  I didn’t expect him, busily engaged in multiple telephone conversations, to take more than a passing interest in me.

Instead, he gave me an uninterrupted window of his time, and for a few precious moments, I felt genuinely in his sphere. He thanked me graciously, and after inquiring whom I was, shared with me his own substantive connection to Cornell that dated to his childhood.

That was it! George Will continued with his calls and his reading, but I shall always remember the kindness afforded to me in this brief, but prodigious encounter. And it will make me a more committed mentor in my own sphere of influence.

In my presentation on mentoring the following afternoon to veterinary students at Iowa State University, we discussed how to identify and reach out to mentors. Can a student engage a busy veterinary expert either at her home institution, or in another city or state?

Yes they can!  Accomplished veterinarians from all sectors of the profession often feel it not simply their duty, but also their privilege to engage students in sharing their life experiences. Whether it’s third-year Cornell student Becky Donnelly meeting Dr. Valerie Ragan,[4] the director for the Center of Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at Virginia-Maryland CVM, or second-year student Aziza Glass interviewing four-times-in-space veterinarian Rick Linnehan by cell phone,[5] mentors are far more accessible than many students realize. Sometimes all we have to do is be confident, assertive, and accept that we may be pleasantly surprised.

Surprised, even changed, sometimes for life. 

[1] Smith, Donald F. Learning Surgery from a Classical Pianist. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, Feb 27, 2014.
[2] Smith, Donald F. What Glenn Gould Taught me about Leadership. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, April 18, 2014
[4] Donnelly, Rebecca, Class Assignment with Impact: An Interview with Valerie Ragan. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, May 28, 2014
[5] Glass, Aziza, A Veterinary Student Interviews a Veterinary Astronaut. Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, April 28, 2014

 Dr. Smith welcomes comments at

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Encouraging Signs for Women's Leadership in the AVMA House of Delegates in 2014

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University, and Julie Kumble, Women's Fund of Western Massachusetts

In the companion article posted on July 31st,[1] we reported that the percentage of women delegates in the current House of Delegates (HOD) is 31.4%.[2] As hopeful as those data appeared relative to the proportion of women we reported a year ago (25%),[3]  we also expressed concern that the voting power of women delegates was constrained because of the proportional weight of the delegates from the ten largest states, eight of whom are men. This is not to imply that men who serve on the HOD fail to make wise and informed decisions, but rather that the deliberations of a decision-making body as critical to the profession as the HOD, should be more representative of the gender profile of the AVMA membership, which is now well over 50% women.

In this article, we present data that further define the demographic profile of women in the House. The following graph shows the percentage of men and women HOD members (delegates and alternates are combined in this graph), segmented by years of graduation from veterinary college.

The high proportion of women HOD members who graduated in the most recent five-year periods (including the years 1995-99 and 2000-04) represents the period when the percentage of women graduates increased from approximately 65% to 72% of the aggregate of US colleges. Though the number of HOD women delegates and alternates who graduated during these two five-year periods is not large (15 and 5, respectively), there appears to be a close parallel between the percentage of women graduating during this period and the percentage of women delegates and alternates in the House. 
Percentage of men and women in House of Delegates 
segmented by years of graduation from veterinary college. 
Delegates and alternates are combined in this graph.
(From AVMA website,, July 1, 2014)[4]

This is especially encouraging because it shows progress over the proportion of women in the HOD who graduated in the 15 previous years (1980-1994). Women who graduated during that earlier period have lower proportionate representation in the HOD compared to their male colleagues. For example, while the proportion of women graduates ranged from about 40% in the early 1980s, increasing to 50% in the late 1980s, and to 60% in the early 1990s, the percentage of women currently in the HOD who graduated during that period was far less, ranging from 20% (early 1980s) to less than 40% a decade later. 

There may be multiple personal, professional and even institutional reasons why women who graduated more recently (1995-2004) are proportionately well-represented in the House. We do not assume that these demographic changes are happening simply because more women are graduating and joining the profession.  After all, the evidence from earlier graduating years (noted above) do not support that conclusion any more than well-documented evidence from other professions.

Though the numbers are not high, the data presented here are encouraging. In the future, we would like to explore potential causative factors and propose recommendations for replicating successful strategies to encourage even greater proportions of female participation.

While not simply a numbers issue—women don’t add value by just being at the table—we believe that the women who have been in the HOD and who are being added now in greater numbers, are not only making a substantive and positive difference, but have great capacity to add real value to the profession as we face the challenges ahead.

By Dr. Donald F. Smith and Julie Kumble, Director of Grants and Programs, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Easthampton, Massachusetts 01027. She can be reached at
The authors thank Dr. Lisa Greenhill, Associate Executive Director for Institutional Research and Diversity at AAVMC, for her contributions and review of this story; also Mr. Nate Watson ’17 for his contributions to data collection.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

[1] Smith, Donald F. and Julie Kumble. “Women in the AVMA’s 2014 House of Delegates, with Some Government Comparisons.” Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, July 15, 2014.
[2] AVMA web site, Jul 1, 2014. 
[3] Smith Donald F. and Julie Kumble. “Women’s Leadership in the U.S. Congress and the AVMA’s House of Delegates: Exploring Parallels and Looking Forward.” Perspectives in Veterinary Medicine, April 28, 2013.
[4] Source, AVMA website, July 1, 2014, Ibid.