Skip to main content

When our fur kids are sick, we are grateful for veterinary science advancements that have made it easier to diagnose and treat our pets. However, not many of us give thought to the long history of veterinary science or the history of veterinarians behind these advancements.

It may surprise you that veterinary care practices date back to the 1700s in Europe. The concepts and teachings of veterinary science made their way to the US during the 19th century.

To appreciate how far we have come in the study of veterinary science, we should take a look at how it has evolved and developed over the centuries. 

A Plague Helps Spark Interest in Veterinary Science

In the 1700s, animals were mainly used for food, clothing and service. Dr. Alan Kelly, BSc, BV Sc, PhD, and the Gilbert S. Kahn dean emeritus of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says the first veterinary school was formed in Lyon, France, because of a repeated outbreak of rinderpest, which is also known as “cattle plague.”

“Cattle plague devastated communities throughout Europe, and there were repeated outbreaks,” says Dr. Kelly.

Claude Bourgelat, who practiced veterinary medicine during the 1700s and received his education through apprenticeships, founded the first formal veterinary school. He applied what was then known about veterinary science to pin down and control the deadly disease.

Dr. Kelly says that soon after, veterinary schools began to open in London, Berlin, Denmark and Sweden.

With the deadly rinderpest contained, the establishment of new veterinary medicine schools slowed, says Dr. Kelly. Institutionalized veterinary medicine didn’t make its way to the US until 100 years later.

Veterinary Science Makes Its Debut in the US

Small, private veterinary schools started forming in the US in the mid-19th century. However, it wasn’t until another disease, bovine pleuropneumonia, hit American slaughterhouses that the US began taking veterinary medicine seriously.

“It was that outbreak in the 1850s that was the impetus for the formation of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),” says Dr. Kelly.

First Public Veterinary Schools in the US

The first US public veterinary school was founded in 1879 by Iowa State University. The college was opened in response to an outbreak of diseases in equines due to a sudden boom in their population in the US. Dr. Kelly explains that over one million horses died during the Civil War, which led to the rapid breeding of American horses and importation of horses from Canada to meet the high demand.

Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is still in existence today. The second oldest public school still in existence is the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, which was founded in 1889.

Importance of Livestock Health

Dr. Dan Grooms, DVM, PhD, and the Dr. Stephen G. Juelsgaard dean of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, says that veterinary schools were founded in the US largely to help control and eradicate diseases that affected agriculture animals, which sometimes impacted human health as well.

“Our strength has been serving agricultural animals for over 100 years,” says Dr. Grooms. “That tradition continues today. Most infectious diseases originate in animals, and veterinarians have always been on the forefront of discovering diseases that are a risk to our public health, as well as to our pets and livestock,” says Dr. Grooms.

Dr. Kelly says that animal diseases, such as rinderpest, can lead to disease and starvation.

He cites the fact that rinderpest rose again in 1889 when Italian colonists began a plan to invade Ethiopia. “They brought cattle to India as part of their provisions, and rinderpest swept through and killed 90 percent of the cattle and 50 percent of other wildlife,” says Dr. Kelly.

As a result, 30 percent of the population in Ethiopia died of starvation. “That shows how important controlling animal disease is, even today,” says Dr. Kelly.

Early Veterinary Discoveries in Agriculture

Both Iowa State University and the University of Pennsylvania veterinary schools have long histories in helping to identify and control animal diseases that have infected and affected humans. Both schools researched bovine tuberculosis, which, at its height in the early 20th century, was killing up to 24,000 people per year through contaminated dairy.

Iowa State created a serum for hog cholera in 1913, which helped control a disease that had killed a quarter of the state’s hog population.

In 1924, Dr. Evan Stubbs diagnosed avian influenza at the University of Pennsylvania. That work continues today at Iowa State University, where their staff worked with federal and state officials during the avian influenza outbreak in 2015.

“Veterinarians are part of a team that we call ‘one health,’” says Dr. Grooms. “If we have healthy animals, we have healthy people and a healthy environment.”

Veterinary Science and Caring for Companion Animals

During the early part of the 20th century—particularly in the 1920s and 1930s, when automobiles took over the job horses once did—veterinary medicine began expanding from livestock to include small and companion animals.

Dr. Kelly says that there were small animal clinics as early as 1884, but companion animals were still not important. In the 1950s, Dr. Kelly says that veterinary medicine began focusing on companion animals and their care.

Dr. George W. Beran, an alumnus of Iowa State University, developed the first rabies vaccine for dogs in 1954. Rabies is deadly to both humans and animals but is largely controlled today in the US thanks to widespread vaccine use.

In the 1950s, Dr. Robert Marshak, DVM, who graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, began studying how specialty practice was set up in human medicine. “He started veterinary specialization modeled after human medicine,” says Dr. Kelly. “He brought that back to the vet school here at Penn, and that really led to the proliferation of specialty care in companion animals in this country.”

Dr. Grooms says that all the research—from the beginning of veterinary medicine to the research and treatment that continues today—has been important to the advancement of veterinary care and equipment used by veterinarians.

Although technology has changed, Dr. Grooms notes that the same basic principles and methods apply today as they did over 100 years ago. “Our veterinarians today use the same investigative tools as they did then; the way they solve problems is very similar,” says Dr. Grooms.  

By: Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Featured Image:

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?