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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Wilson Bell '39, Connecting Cornell to Virginia-Tech University

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University

Cornell’s veterinary class of 1939 was distinctive. Thirty-six men and three women arrived in Ithaca, New York in the depths of the Depression and would form the nucleus of the most diverse classes in the history of veterinary medicine, as well as one of the most cohesive?(1)

I became interested in this class several years ago and interviewed as many of the surviving alumni as possible though they were all well into their 90s at the time.(2)  For those who were deceased, I tried to find out as much about them as possible through second- and third-hand sources.  One of my greatest challenges was to learn of Dr. Wilson Bell, a Virginia native, who had died in 1992.  All I could find out from the Cornell records is that he had entered the class as a freshman in 1935 and graduated on schedule four years later.

Little was remembered about this man by the members of Class of 1939 whom I interviewed, though one recalled that he had worked at Virginia-Tech University. Not surprising, I thought, because he had been from Virginia.. This was corroborated by a letter written to his classmates at the time of their 30th reunion in 1969 that had “director of development” on its Virginia-Tech masthead.

I made several calls to the Blacksburg Virginia-Tech campus at the time, but neither library personnel nor various administrative offices was able to confirm any more than Dr. Bell had worked at the university. One person told me that he had been an administrator in the College of Agriculture.

I did not pursue Dr. Bell’s history any more until a couple of months ago, while reading the centennial book’s history of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association,(3) I stumbled upon several references to him written by Mr. Jeff Douglas who had spent many years working on the Blacksburg campus. I learned that Dr. Bell had been dean of Agriculture for many years, then had moved into central administration in the late 1960s where he was the inaugural development officer for the university.

Dr. Bell’s pre-Cornell history was also intriguing. He had received his undergraduate education in biology from Virginia Tech, followed by a masters in microbiology. He then moved to Ithaca where he accepted an assistantship in bacteriology and pathology.  One of the fringe benefits of being a Cornell faculty member at the time was to take courses at the university, so he enrolled in the DVM program of the veterinary college. Perhaps one of the reasons he was never well known by his classmates is that he was heavily engaged in teaching at the time. He also was the most educated person in the class, as only one year of undergraduate education was required at the time.

Following graduation, Dr. Bell was employed by the University of California until he entered military service in World War II. After the war, he returned to Virginia Tech where he eventually became dean of agriculture and, in 1968, director of development.

Cornell has connections with many of the veterinary colleges that arose in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine is no exception.(4)  However, it is unusual that the shared history goes as far back as the 1930s.  

The author acknowledges the assistance of Mr. Jeff Douglas, contributing author of the centennial history, in preparing this story.

(1) In addition to the three women (the most of any veterinary class to that time), two foreigners (a Canadian and a man from China), an African-American from Tennessee (Cornell’s only Black veterinary graduate of the 1930s), and eight Jewish students were members of the Class of 1939.
(3) Sanford, S. Mason. A Century of Science. The Virginia Veterinary Medical Association. 1894-1994. Gurtner Printing, Salem, Virginia 1994.
(4) One of the founders of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine was Dr. Kent Roberts ‘51, a prominent Virginia veterinarian. The third dean of the college, Dr. Gerhardt Schurig received his PhD from Cornell in 1977.
(5) Douglas, Jeffrey S. Senior, Communications Consultant, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
(6) Sanford, S. Mason. Ibid