Three questions for … veterinary historian Dr. Russell Currier

I love to talk to people, or more accurately, I love to listen to people. I am always one to start a friendly conversation, and it’s rare that I find the time doing so wasted. Not surprisingly, I am especially happy to listen to colleagues, and I tend to do a great of this at all the conferences and veterinary association meetings I attend as part of my work as Chief Veterinary Officer for VPI.

When the AVMA convention was in Chicago, I found myself waiting for the shuttle to the conference center with a friendly gentleman. The shuttle was taking its time getting there, so we decided to share a cab. And from that day, I became friends with Russell W. Currier, DVM, a Iowa veterinarian retired from an illustrious career in public health and large-animal practice, and now an avid historian of veterinary medicine. As part of my ongoing “Three Questions” series, I thought I’d put my friend the veterinary historian on the spot:

Russell Currier, DVM
Russell Currier, DVM, retired from a remarkable career in public health and large animal practice. He now enjoys studying veterinary history.

What drew you to your study of veterinary history?

I have always had some interest in history, but nothing in-depth. When I was a veterinary student in 1963, our dean at the University of Minnesota, W.T.S. Thorpe, lectured an hour each week on historical dimensions of our profession. This was for first-year students only and was scheduled for Friday afternoons after all classes and laboratory sessions were completed. We students really got an education on the depth of our profession and the various difficulties — political, changing needs of practice, disease problems and the like — that had to be overcome.

That experience planted the seed, and over time I purchased some books on the topic but never really got into serious study until retirement. Now I regret my delay when I see how important the study of history can be for relevance to today’s problems. I think all veterinary schools and colleges should offer a course in veterinary history; only about five offer such a course currently.

What does veterinary history offer a practicing veterinarian today?

Fundamentally, history shows how important the concept of One Health is to our activities. Until the beginning of the 20th century, many physicians assisted with the medical and surgical care of animals. For most of the 20th century both camps were in their own “silos,” and that was detrimental to progress in both professions. Veterinarians should monitor trends and technologies of human medicine to identify useful parallels. For example, issues in CAFOs or animal shelters are not totally different from day-care centers or nursing home facilities; hospital-acquired infections and antibiotic resistance is a “biggie” in the human sphere.

Practicing physicians and veterinarians in a simple sense are sentinels in the trenches. They have been the first to see new or emerging diseases throughout history and speak to our critical role in reporting disease. Also perhaps as you look back, you’ll see that modern clinicians often have lost some of their observational acumen owing to the plethora of laboratory aids at our disposal. Nevertheless, keen observation of patients is still critical to being an effective clinician; clinical descriptions of older or even antique texts offer very detailed descriptions of disease and merit review.

Medical and veterinary history also includes the study of evolution of both microorganisms and host species in “deep time.” Here for instance we try to determine the role of antibiotics on both macro and micro life forms. Sometimes organisms jump species: for example, HIV-AIDS from chimps to humans. A more amusing example is that of head lice that perplex parents everywhere: The proto-human line split off from the chimp line about six million years ago and so did the lice species Pediculus humanus capitis affecting humans and Pediculus schaeffi found on chimps. Even more curiously, the notorious pubic louse, Pthirus pubis, appeared suddenly on humans three million years ago and apparently jumped species from gorillas to humans; gorillas continue to be infested with closely related Pthirus gorillae.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve run across in your study of veterinary history?

I was really impressed with the history of milk-borne disease, which goes back for centuries. I had a naive view that most of the pre-pasteurization milk-borne disease was of bovine origin. In fact streptococcal disease — e.g. septic sore throat, diphtheria, and typhoid fever — were the most common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and are all human-sourced diseases. This occurred for a variety of reasons, but primarily faulty refrigeration and hand-milking of cows coupled with poor personal hygiene of dairymen led to gross contamination of milk. The leadership to advocate for pasteurization came from a subset of our physicians; the role of veterinarians was less prominent. Also, encouraging breast-feeding was advocated by a small group of doctors but with less success as most practicing physicians dreamed up elaborate schemes for feeding formula to infants. Oliver Wendell Holmes impatiently remarked, “A pair of substantial mammary glands is far superior to both hemispheres of the most learned professor’s brain in the art of compounding a nutritive fluid for infants.”

(As an aside to that observation I just learned recently that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician and creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, was so enamored with the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes that he named his character in his honor!)

In my personal experience, a second more amusing example of “surprising discoveries” was that the gravitation of veterinary medicine from horses to livestock and companion animals that occurred in the late 1890s and first decade of the 20th century, essentially reducing the need for veterinary services. What was the technological development that generated this anxiety? Answer: Not motor vehicles but the invention of the bicycle in 1886 that started to supplant the saddle horse as a means of personal transportation.


Dr. Currier has long been involved with the American Veterinary Medical Historical Society, and he suggests that everyone in the veterinary community learn more about the past. Visit the society’s website for more information.  Support our heritage!