June 15, 2009


 Collection shows Depression-era veterinarians' achievements, struggles

Former veterinary college dean's project captures oral histories of Cornell graduates

Posted June 1, 2009
Dr. Robert Ferber's first client brought in a dog for care in 1939.  

"It was a $2 call, and the man said to me he'd be back soon to pay me," Dr. Ferber said. "And I'm still waiting." 
The now 94-year-old was his own boss immediately after graduating from Cornell University and establishing a practice in Bayside in New York City. He always made enough money to buy food and clothing, he said. 
Dr. Robert Ferber
Dr. Robert Ferber

"My intent was to enjoy what I did," Dr. Ferber said. "I didn't just want to do something to make money. I wanted to enjoy what I did if I could, and at the same time, make a reasonably good living so I could get married and raise a family."

Dr. Ferber is one of 20 veterinarians who graduated from Cornell in the 1930s and have been interviewed recently for a historical project, "An Enduring Veterinary Legacy." Biographies of interview subjects, audio recordings, and transcripts of the interviews are being made available online through the Cornell University Library.

Dr. Ferber told JAVMA he was happy to share his experiences and help his university by taking part in the project.

Dr. Donald F. Smith, the former dean of veterinary medicine at Cornell University, said he has learned about character, perseverance, and the development of the veterinary profession in conducting the interviews. The interviews show "the beauty of growing old with a very satisfying life history."

"Understanding history gives us both a unique and a very powerful insight into the present and the future," Dr. Smith said. "And that's of particular relevance during times of transition and challenge, which we currently face both because of the national and world situation, and also just because of the changes that are occurring in the veterinary profession, independent of the current economic challenges."

The interviewees became veterinarians when livestock and poultry medicine were replacing equine medicine as veterinary colleges' dominant focus and when small animal medicine started developing in major cities.

Graduates who took on small animal patients often did so to increase income in livestock practices, Dr. Smith said. Other veterinarians developed small animal-exclusive practices as more people migrated to cities.

"There was proportionately less instruction given to small animal medicine in the colleges, so these veterinarians who graduated in the '30s were often learning, as one of my interviewees put it, 'by the seat of your pants,'" Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Mitchell E. Kornet, a 1979 graduate of Cornell and one of Dr. Smith's former students, said he sees similarities among the veterinarians interviewed for the project and those in practice today.

"Reading the transcripts, you can see how much the vets really cared about our profession and the quality of work that they were doing," Dr. Kornet said.

Having read familiar names in the veterinarians' stories, Dr. Kornet said he learned about the early career development of some professors and practitioners he has known in their later years.

Dr. Smith hopes people who read his interview subjects' stories will learn about the development of the profession, how those from the 1930s classes overcame problems, how they enjoyed accomplishments, and what adversity they faced in their professional and personal lives.

Dr. Ferber said he was anxious to go to work every day, yet anxious to get home to his wife. He said he looked forward to each day with the idea that it would be enjoyable, challenging, and interesting, and he enjoyed having cerebral and physical aspects to his work.

Asked what he hopes people gain from reading his story, Dr. Ferber said, "Enjoy your life's work if possible, and happiness will flow from it."

The collections are available online at http://ecommons.library.cornell.edu/handle/1813/11807. Dr. Smith is also inviting people to send comments and suggestions for further development of the collection to dfs6@cornell.edu.