Dr. Leon H. Russell Jr. and his wife, Martha, pause for a photograph between sessions
of the 2008 International Military Veterinary Medical Symposium in Garmisch, Germany.
One of the most formative experiences for Dr. Leon H. Russell Jr. occurred during his childhood, when he had to undergo the Pasteur treatment for rabies after his dog contracted the disease.
That boy went on to study veterinary medicine, epidemiology, and microbiology. He has devoted his decades-long career to promoting public health, serving on the faculty at Texas A&M University, and advancing the veterinary profession.
At the AVMA Annual Convention, during the Hill's Opening Session, Dr. Russell accepted the 2010 AVMA Award for contributions to organized veterinary medicine.
"Everyone respects and loves Leon," said Dr. James O. Cook, 2008-2009 AVMA president. "He's just been a great leader locally, nationally, and internationally."
In nominating Dr. Russell for the AVMA Award, Dr. Cook wrote that Dr. Russell is "a leader for leaders."
Nevertheless, Dr. Russell didn't set out to be a leader. In an interview with JAVMA News, he spoke about the course of his career in academia and involvement in organized veterinary medicine.
Dr. Russell earned his veterinary degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1956 and a master's in public health from Tulane University in 1958. Then Texas A&M invited him to start an epidemiology course for veterinary students. There, he earned a doctorate in veterinary microbiology in 1965.
He has stayed in academia, he said, because it continues to present challenges. He still teaches epidemiology and other courses at Texas A&M. In addition, he has conducted research in areas ranging from rabies to food safety.
"I got involved in organized veterinary medicine primarily just to keep up to date on things, what's going on with colleagues in the field, in practice," Dr. Russell said.
Dr. Russell became increasingly active in organized veterinary medicine at the urging of colleagues. He was the 1984-1985 president of the Texas VMA before becoming a member of the AVMA Executive Board. He later served as the 1993-1994 president of the AVMA.
"I didn't have a goal of being president, actually had no desire to do that," he said. "Sometimes you get there, and you want to get some things done."
As AVMA president, among other accomplishments, Dr. Russell helped push for passage of the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994 to allow extralabel drug use by veterinarians.
A few years later, colleagues encouraged Dr. Russell to run to be a North America representative to the World Veterinary Association. Dr. Russell served as a North America councilor from 1999 through 2002, then served as 2002-2005 WVA vice president before serving as the 2005-2008 WVA president.
"Things were changing fast worldwide; they still are going fast," Dr. Russell said. "The AVMA needed a voice in the international scene."
International issues of concern range from veterinary education to animal welfare to rabies and other zoonoses, Dr. Russell said.
Recently, Dr. Russell has been taking a break from formal involvement in organized veterinary medicine—leaving the future to younger leaders. He also speculated that, one of these days, he might retire from Texas A&M.
The Oct. 1 JAVMA News will feature career highlights of the recipients of other awards from the AVMA.