History of veterinary medicine in Pennsylvania

History of veterinary medicine in Pennsylvania

The Need for Veterinary Medicine

By 1710 pioneers had settled land as far as sixty miles from Philadelphia. As early as 1757, Carlisle has become a supply center for the forts of the frontier. The occurrence of animal disease was surrounded by mystery, superstition, and ignorance.

This letter was written in November 1776 by Ephraim Blaine of Carlisle to John Hancock, President of the Congress:


Honorable Sir-

I have purchased three hundred head of cattle to lay in winter stock... have used every endeavor to procure salt to preservethe beef, but can’t obtain one bushel...

Begs your Honor's application to the Honorable Congress for 230 bushels if it to be had; should it not be obtained, am distressedto know how to Act. It’s impossible to feed cattle over winter to keep them fit for slaughtering without being at very great expense.They are daily losing beef.

Eph. Blaine

The fact that it was even possible to accumulate three hundred cattle in the vicinity of Carlisle in 1776 is testimony enough that Pennsylvania had a visible livestock industry. The words "Veterinarian". "horse doctor", or even "animal doctor" were not part of the vocabulary of the time. Even the practitioners who cared for the horses in the Roman Army were called "veterinarii" and veterinary science progressed in Europe with the first veterinary school being chartered at Lyon, France in 1762.

The neighbor who was good with animals grew out of necessity because the colonists, far removed from society were thrown upon their own ingenuity. The occurrence of animal disease was surrounded by mystery, superstition and ignorance. It's not much of an indictment because the physicians were not much better informed. As often, the problem was simple … the cure was not. The scientists approached both human and animal disease with fundamental knowledge and an effort to establish a cause and to affect a cure. Often, when an animal was sick a Ferrier or herdsman would approach the animal with a bag full of roots and herbs, with some witchcraft and moronic mentality that the more it hurts, the better it heals.

Early veterinarians in Pennsylvania

By the early 1800s, graduate veterinarians (most from London) had started to infiltrate the American cities. Many of which became prominent practitioners. With the absence of veterinary schools, young men served an apprenticeship under the best of these English Veterinarians, and went on to become practitioners themselves. There were graduate medical doctors that used their knowledge to treat animals and there were some who treated “man and beast”. Most of the practitioners in the outlying areas were self taught or not taught at all. When the process of printing became available, books on horse medicine made some contribution to the knowledge of the practitioners. In 1735, Ben Franklin advertised the reprinting of Gentleman's Pocket Ferrier which described "how to use your horse on a journey and what remedies are proper for common misfortunes that may beset him on the road."

The following quote was taken from the preface of the American Ferrier by Augustus Franklin, printed in Strasburg in 1803.

"Few subjects in the common affairs of life relating to property more immediately connects itself with the interest of individuals than an efficient knowledge of a number of means to repel such a variety of diseases as are incident to horses; and, yet, few there are who have made themselves acquainted with them, not withstanding their repeated losses, to the great injury of their circumstances – in many instances – and their excruciating suffering in their poor beasts."

This sentence and the next from the same book:"Where any surgical or medical operation is necessary for your beast, I would recommend the most mild course of it."

Individuals were pressing for scientific veterinary knowledge. The memoirs of the Philadelphia Agricultural Society, published for the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, contained many articles on animal diseases. Richard Peters (1770-1848), was largely responsible for this trend toward veterinary medicine at the Society meetings. He was president of the Society in 1805 and was a dominant figure promoting his pet project for many years. Peters repeatedly stressed the need for veterinary school because he realized the caliber of self-styled animal doctors. He knew that the only solution to the animal disease problem was the establishment of schools to train veterinarians.

In 1806, the Philadelphia Society offered a gold metal for “the best essay and plan for promoting veterinary knowledge.” In reply to the offer, Dr. Benjamin Rush (1746-1813), introduced a series of lectures to his medical students at the University of Pennsylvania, on Studying Diseases of Domestic Animals.

Peters and Rush were the great benefactors of veterinary medicine, then their friend, Dr. James Mease, was an early investigator of disease outbreaks. In 1793, he recognized rabies as being caused by the bite of a mad dog. In his appeal for improving veterinary medicine, Mease made this statement to the Philadelphia Agricultural Society on November 3, 1813:“The veterinary art is a practical application of scientific principles, to the preservation of the health of domestic animals, and to the cure of their diseases, in the same manner as the art of medicine applies to the health and preservation of man; and the science in which this art is grounded, and which it requires for its perfect exercise, comprise the natural history, anatomy, physiology, and pathology of those animals, together with such portions of the vegetable or mineral kingdoms as are connected with them, either in the way of ailment or remedy.”

One of Pennsylvania’s most well known veterinarians was Dr. Isaiah Michener. It is unknown how he learned veterinary medicine but he started his practice in 1836. he contributed articles to the Philadelphia and country newspapers under column titles, "The Veterinarian" and "The Observer". He wrote:“Companies have been formed, funds obtained almost everywhere to build a theatre, construct a railroad or dig a canal … but the paramount interest of every agriculturist, the preservation of his livestock from the ravages of disease, is almost totally neglected. When will the farmer study his own business?”

Development of the Profession

By the mid 1800’s, Philadelphia and other large cities of Pennsylvania had veterinarians who were scientists and practiced medicine based on the knowledge available at the time. But the vast majority of practitioners throughout the valleys of the state were inexpert and uneducated. It was decades before trained people filtered in. it would take close to a century for the graduate veterinarians to live down some of the unprofessional habits of their predecessors. It can only be said that a few were self educated and experienced. It has been written that the armies of Europe were aware of the value of veterinary care as early as the third century, but it took the United States Army until the Civil War to reach that conclusion. It was not until 1835 that the word “veterinarian” even appeared in an Army Regulation. That regulation required inspectors to see that “veterinarians perform their duties.” It took more than one hundred year after the formation of the first Regiment of Light Dragoons to really identify a “blacksmith” and a “Ferrier”. The blacksmith was held in such little regard by the Continental Congress that the Congress would not allows civilians hired by the Quartermaster to have their horses shod at government expense. “A little neglect may breed mischief: for want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost.”- Benjamin Franklin, 1757.

Horses continued to play a greater role in the U.S. Army. Finally, one hundred and three years after the first regiment of dragoons, the following paragraph appeared in General Orders Number 36, 1879:“Hereafter appointments as veterinary surgeons will be confined to the graduates of established and reputable veterinary medicine schools and colleges.”

The Establishment of the Veterinary College of Philadelphia

A charter was obtained from the Pennsylvania Legislator for the Veterinary College of Philadelphia. This was the first charter of its kind issued in the United States, but the school never graduated a student and subsequently lost any claim to being the first veterinary school. That honor has been singularly given to the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons, chartered in 1857 at New York University. The non-graduates were highly independent and unorganized, but the graduate veterinarians had the advantage of unity of purpose. Their leaders from Philadelphia and New York has met in 1863 to organize the United States Veterinary Medical Association. A few graduates in the Philadelphia area formed the Keystone Veterinary Medical Association, the first organized veterinary group in Pennsylvania, in 1882. Later, on August 22, 1883 a group of veterinarians joined to form the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association. Twenty two veterinarians assembled to hear about the continuing education and legislative activities of veterinary conventions in other states and to consider formation of an association to conduct similar work in Pennsylvania. This was not the first time that Pennsylvania veterinarians had tried to organize. The very first veterinary association was launched in Philadelphia on May 7, 1854, by Robert Jennings. Perhaps the most successful of the PVMA’s educational programs is the Mid-Atlantic States Veterinary Clinic, a one day session of “wet” demonstrations, started in York, Pennsylvania, in 1962. Alternating annually between the York Interstate Fair Grounds in Timonium, where the clinic is sponsored by the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association, the program attracts more than 400 practitioners from at least seven states.

The need for a Veterinary college in Pennsylvania was another of the issues taken up by the PVMA in its first year of existence. There were only about three hundred graduate veterinarians in the United States 1883. The importance of strong local, state and national veterinary associations was emphasized by Dr. Hoskins in a paper presented at the keystone meeting on October 11, 1892:

“The many sudden and broad changes that have characterized the doings in the world of veterinary science during the past year seem to demand at our hands stronger consideration, stronger work. It affords us an incentive that will bring to us the end of our work a rich return, when we have properly considered and disposed of the great questions that are knocking at our doors for aid in their final dispositions. It also points strongly to the need of stronger veterinary organizations. The national one must soon tend in directions and lines that will lift it entirely from the consideration of those topics which are more or less local in character…”

The keystone has the distinction of being the first veterinary association in the country to urge “a single standard of examinations in veterinary medicine.” A national board was established but it was 1955 before a standard national examination was offered. The national board of veterinary medical examiners was organized by the AVMA in 1950 with its primary objective to “elevate the standard of qualification necessary to practice by means of a comprehensive examination to be made available to licensing boards in the various states.”

Once organized, Pennsylvania veterinarians found themselves in a position to be able to do more for their fellow man, and for the domestic animals, than they had been able to do as individuals.you These major accomplishment is veterinary medicine have come a long way today from what they once were. Advancements are being made everyday in every aspect of veterinary medicine.


# "The American Veterinary Profession: its background and development" / J.F. Smithcors. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1963.
# "American Veterinary History" / by Bert W. Bierer. Madison, Wis.: Carl Olson, 1980.
# "The history of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, 1954-1979" / by Wayne O. Kester. Golden, Colo.: The Association, 1980.
# "Valuing Animals: Veterinarians and their patients in modern America" / Susan D. Jones. Author: Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
# "After 1883: One hundred years of organized Veterinary Medicine". Thompson, Ray. 1982.

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