June 15, 2009


 "Work hard at things you love to do"

Laboratory animal advocate still a force 72 years after graduation

Posted June 1, 2009

The year was 1904. St. Louis hosted the World's Fair. Construction began on the Panama Canal. Teddy Roosevelt was elected to his first full term as president. And the AVMA's eldest member, Dr. Nathan R. Brewer, was born.

A renowned advocate for laboratory animal welfare since the 1940s, Dr. Brewer has taught and promoted humane care and its crucial role in ensuring valid biomedical research. The AVMA conferred on him its 2001 Animal Welfare Award, one of many honors he has received. He is also a diplomate of the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine.

Dr. Nathan R. Brewer

Dr. Nathan R. Brewer celebrating his 100th
birthday five years ago at the National Zoo
in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Brewer received his doctorate in physiology from the University of Chicago in 1936 and his DVM degree from Michigan State College a year later. The war years were spent in private practice in California. In 1945, Dr. Brewer became one of the first full-time laboratory animal veterinarians at a university when he began managing the facilities at the University of Chicago. He was also an associate professor of physiology.

Retiring from the university in 1969, Dr. Brewer then pursued comparative physiology and laboratory animal management consulting for 21 years. Even after that, his work continued through library activities, lectures, and writing.

Dr. Brewer is an AVMA honor roll member and one of five members who are centenarians. He and his wife, Jean, live in Potomac, Md. His enduring interest in laboratory animal medicine and the profession is evident in his dialogue with JAVMA News as he approached his 105th birthday, June 28.

How do you feel about being the eldest member in the AVMA database?

I feel very humble and grateful to have lived so long.

Describe the Michigan State College class of 1937. Did you and your classmates stay close over the years?

I have known so many veterinarians and scientists over the years that it is difficult for me to remember which of my colleagues were actually in my class. I certainly have remained close to many of those I met at Michigan State, including Dr. James Steele, with whom I continue to correspond.

When you were presented the AVMA Animal Welfare Award, you were introduced as the father of laboratory animal medicine. Why was this?

I was one of the first veterinarians hired by a university specifically to oversee the care of the animals used in research programs throughout the university. When I was hired by the University of Chicago in 1945, in most universities and research facilities the care of research animals was the responsibility of the individual investigators. Since the knowledge of the individual investigators regarding animals varied widely, so did the care of the animals. Universities and other research facilities were slow to hire veterinarians to provide knowledgeable care for their laboratory animals, both because they considered employing veterinarians an unnecessary expense and because the researchers did not want any interference with their established programs.

However, after I was hired, it became clear to other institutions that the University of Chicago was actually saving money with centralized, knowledgeable animal care. Moreover, it became clear to the individual researchers that they could obtain more reliable, reproducible results in their experiments if their laboratory animals were healthy, well-fed, and properly and uniformly housed. Thus, rather quickly, two other universities—Northwestern and the University of Illinois—hired veterinarians as well. In short order, veterinarians were being hired by institutions throughout the country.

In addition to being one of the first veterinarians to devote myself full time to the care of laboratory animals, I am also one of the founders of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science. This organization promotes the humane care of laboratory animals by institutions, research scientists, and animal breeders and suppliers. It evolved from a small group called the Animal Care Panel founded by five veterinarians, including myself. Our initial vision was quite modest. We wanted an organization that would encourage the proper care of laboratory animals and inform the public about that care. AALAS became much more, growing from its very humble beginnings into a political, educational, and regulatory body.

How was improving conditions for laboratory animals important not only to animal welfare but also to scientific advances?

Improving conditions for laboratory animals was not only important for the welfare of the animals but was equally important to ensure the validity of the research for which the animals were being used. In the early days of research conducted using animals, the husbandry of the animals was totally makeshift. The enclosures that held the animals varied from used shipping crates and glass jars to old horse stalls. The bedding used was far from sterile and often was contaminated with insects. There were minimal attempts at lighting and temperature control. In short, the conditions under which the research animals were kept often caused stress, illness, and death of the animals, leading to questionably valid research results, not to mention raising serious ethical issues.

How do you think laboratory animal medicine fits in with the growing one-health movement?

Laboratory animal medicine is essential to the one-health movement. Valid research results necessary to expeditiously advance both human and veterinary medical care can be obtained only by using healthy, well-bred, and well-maintained laboratory animals.

What words do you have for critics of biomedical research?

Critics of biomedical research fail to understand that the results of this research benefit both humans and animals in very significant ways. For example, the development of vaccines to prevent diseases that used to ravage animals, such as distemper, and humans, such as polio, would not have been possible without biomedical research. Equally impossible without biomedical research would have been the development of a wide range of lifesaving antibiotics to treat infections in animals and in humans, and the development of antineoplastic drugs used to treat and sometimes cure malignant diseases in animals and humans.

Since your retirement you have pursued your interest in the morphologic differences between animals. What can you tell us about this pursuit?

I have always found the morphologic differences and similarities between animals fascinating, and I hoped that by carefully reading veterinary and medical research literature and cataloging the differences and similarities between species on an organ-by-organ and system-by-system basis, I could provide those who are actively engaged in research with useful information.

You have also had more time to indulge in your passion for chess. How did you and former AVMA editor-in-chief Dr. Albert Koltveit become chess partners?

I used to go to chess tournaments and play weekly with a chess club at the National Institutes of Health, but as travel became harder with age, I played more postal chess. Dr. Koltveit and I are old friends. Playing postal chess with one another was a good way for both of us to try to keep our minds active and to stay in touch with each other.

Would you like to share any other recent pursuits or future plans?

At 105, I have given up long-term planning. I am trying to spend as much time with my family—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, and nephews—as possible, and to go to as many family celebrations as I can.

Do you have advice or encouragement for veterinary students or any other insights for the profession at this time?

I would give veterinary students the same advice I give my grandchildren. It is important to work hard at things you love to do. If you do this, you will be both successful and happy, and you will make a significant contribution to your profession and to society as a whole.

I have been fortunate to be able to do those things that were of interest to me. I hope I made a contribution to my profession and to society, but that is for others to judge.