No easy sailing for inaugural students

Entire school relocated after first few years
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

An eccentric entrepreneur. A daughter who couldn't get into veterinary school. A poverty-stricken country. An overnight sea voyage.

All these things, both mundane and marvelous, contributed to the origin of Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, St. Kitts, West Indies, in 1982.

Actually, the story goes back a bit further, to 1976 with Robert Ross at age 57. By this time in his life, he had fought in the European theater during World War II, sold televisions in the Midwest months before stations even began broadcasting, founded a semiconductor company, and received an honorary doctorate, according to a 1992 New York Times profile.

One day in 1976, a staff member's son who had been studying medicine in the Dominican Republic was rejected by the American hospitals to which he applied for clinical training. The staff member asked whether Ross would be willing to start a medical school. So Ross did.

Launch of the local island trading ship
The launch of the local island trading ship built on a beach in Portsmouth, Dominica, that was used to relocate Ross' veterinary school to St. Kitts

Two years later, he opened one just outside Portsmouth, Dominica, in a motel with 11 students.

"He chose the West Indies because he felt it was too costly and arduous to open a college in the United States," according to the article. "In Dominica, all he needed was a charter from the government, which involved annual fees of $100,000, and eight faculty members and a dean from the United States."

Starting (almost) from scratch

The veterinary school began much the same way. In the early 1980s, "Dr. Ross had a friend whose daughter couldn't get into vet school, so he said, 'Why don't we have a vet school of our own? We already have a med school,'" said Dr. Bobby G. Brown, Ross veterinary school's first dean.

The veterinary school was chartered in Dominica as well in 1982, admitting its first class on the same campus as the medical school. Veterinary students shared many of their basic science classes with the medical students.

The rest of their courses were taught by visiting professors; one full-time faculty member, Dr. Norm Ronald, who taught parasitology; and Dr. Brown, who taught anatomy and physiology.

Dr. Brown soon discovered the difficulties of teaching while also shouldering the responsibilities of being dean and implementing a new curriculum, as members of the initial class progressed in their studies.

"It was a struggle the whole time to get supplies, faculty, students oriented, and deal with all the things required to maintain connections with the New York office," Dr. Brown said, particularly because a short phone call could cost about $25.

Not long after the veterinary school was started, Ross decided he wanted to relocate it to St. Kitts. Dominica's politics had been up-and-down, Dr. Brown said, and Dr. Ross didn't want "all of his eggs in one basket" because of the potential for hurricane damage.

Construction started in 1983 on two buildings in Basseterre, St. Kitts, to house laboratories, a clinic, and lecture rooms. They were finished by the time students from the first class were nearly ready to move into their final, clinical year. After another six months, the rest of the veterinary school joined them on the new island.

On a hope and a prayer

The experience had by the Ross inaugural veterinary class was not conventional, to say the least.

Dr. Hugh R. Matthews of Emmitsburg, Md., recalls that during his admissions interview, his elderly interviewer dozed off in the middle of the process.

Unphased, he made it to Dominica with his wife, Nell, in the summer of 1982. He, like many of his classmates, had been rejected by U.S. veterinary schools but wasn't about to give up on becoming a veterinarian.

"They worked hard. We took students who couldn't get into U.S. vet schools, and they came knowing this was their last chance," Dr. Brown said. "There was not much for them to do on the island except study and social interactions. So consequently on Dominica that first year, if I offered to have a class on Saturday to make up for things they had missed those first few courses; that's all I had to say and everybody showed up."

Dr. Matthews and his wife lived in a small apartment over a telephone shop. They didn't own a car. Meals were cooked on a small propane cooker. They didn't have hot water or screens on their windows. For him, it was all part of the experience.

He vividly remembers watching an island boat being built on the way to and from school in Dominica.

"We found out later that was what we (later) moved the vet school stuff on," Dr. Matthews said. "They loaded up all the equipment from the veterinary school in the boat, and on an evening two or three days after the last final exam, we all took off for St. Kitts with the microscopes needed for the vet school. We went all night on the boat. We slept in hammocks all over the boat and arrived the next morning in St. Kitts."

Dr. Matthews went to school in St. Kitts for only one semester. There were more than a dozen in his class originally, but only eight or nine students remained by the time they went to Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine for their clinical year in March 1985. Not sure if they were adequately prepared, once the Ross students began, they knew they were. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, wasn't entirely ready to receive them at first.

"Everyone told us we'd go there our senior year and everything's fine and we're all thrilled to go back to America. It was exciting, we had worked hard. It was a big deal," said Dr. Matthews, who graduated in 1985. "We later found out that nothing was concrete or signed at all. ... I guess ignorance is bliss."

A job well done

Dr. Matthews gives much credit to Dr. Brown for getting Ross' veterinary school off the ground and advocating for those first few classes.

"He was our hero. He believed in us when a lot of people didn't want this to happen," Dr. Matthews said.

Dr. Brown says he was equally impressed with the students, whom he considered practically his own children. He still keeps in touch with many of them and notes that a few have gone on to lead prominent careers in the veterinary profession, such as Dr. John Bradfield, who is senior director of the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International.

Dr. Brown also gives much credit to Dr. Charles "Chuck" Hutchinson, whom he hired to teach neuroanatomy not long after moving to St. Kitts.

"After a year, I asked him if he'd stay, and he ended up staying 23 years and became associate dean. He developed a lot of the teaching methods, computerized class work, and he did more to advance teaching at Ross than anyone else," he said.

Dr. Brown left Ross and hasn't had any affiliation with the school since then.

"But I'm still proud of the work we did to develop the foundation of the school, and see things put in place continue on, and see students do well in a limited environment," Dr. Brown said.

Robert Ross' involvement with the university also diminished over the years. He sold the medical and veterinary schools to Leeds Equity Partners in 2000. Three years later, Leeds sold the school to DeVry Inc. for about $310 million. Ross died March 26 of this year at the age of 92.