Like everywhere, the history of veterinary medicine reflects the larger history of the United States. Sunday’s American Veterinary History Society meeting was a fascinating glimpse into several periods of US history through the lens of human-animal relationships and especially veterinary medicine. Here are a few highlights from my notes:
Michael Blackwell, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, gave a powerful lecture (much of it extemporaneous) on the participation of ethnic, cultural, and gender minorities in vet med over time. He asked, “why was veterinary medicine quiet during the Civil Rights era?” As with so many other important social institutions, he answered, our profession hoped that “if we were quiet, integration would not happen to us first.” Blackwell challenged the profession to become a leader in diversity, not just for the sake of diversity; but because of our role in the overall social good. Many animal-owning communities around the US feel alienated from the veterinary profession, due in part to the fact that they have not been historically represented in the profession. “We lose something when we don’t have a significant number in our profession of people from those communities we are trying to serve.” These communities have different cultural attitudes towards animals, and different levels of socioeconomic resources; but we all love our animals and want to care for them.
Cultural beliefs came up again in Kimberly Porter’s analysis of the “Cedar County Cow Wars.” This episode pitted angry farmers against government veterinarians mandated to test cattle for TB. Between about 1926 and 1931, this one county in the state of Iowa was consumed in hostilities over the meaning of “scientific” and the validity of the tuberculin test, the rights of individual animal owners versus the broader public health concerns of officials, and fears that traditional rural American culture was disappearing. Porter is the first historian I know of who has discovered the role of a radio “shock jock” named Norman Baker, who broadcast over the station “KTNT” under the banner of “The Naked Truth.” In the tradition of Billy Sunday and other inflammatory radio personalities, Baker classed meat packers, serum manufacturers, and government vets as the farmers’ enemy. Porter argues that Baker inflamed his radio audience, thus accounting for the fact that this was the only place in the US where violence accompanied TB testing to this degree (and where a lawsuit went all the way up to the US Supreme Court).
Cultural attitudes toward veterinarians and animals can be discerned from many sources: the postcards that Trenton Boyd has collected; the newspapers and radio broadcasts from the “cow wars,” the oral histories, published lectures and papers, photographs and adverts, …all of these sources and more were featured at the Sunday session. This was a great program of veterinary and animal history. More soon!