Bringing veterinary medicine to the fore

Founder of U.S. organized veterinary medicine was also its most outspoken critic
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At a time when the U.S. veterinary profession had no licensing body, or, for that matter, standards of practice, a scholarly Frenchman thought practitioners could do better.

Dr. Alexandre Francois Liautard
Dr. Alexandre Francois Liautard (1835-1918) at age 30; recognized as the father of the American veterinary profession, he was the first editor of the American Veterinary Review, now known as JAVMA

Dr. Alexandre Francois Liautard, as the first editor of the AVMA’s American Veterinary Review (now JAVMA) from 1877-1915, made his opinion known in dozens of editorials. He eschewed untrained practitioners who gave themselves titles such as the “Homeopathics Mesmeric and Psychological Veterinary Surgeon” and the “Voluntary Epidemo-Zoological Missionary.” He advocated for a national examination for veterinary students prior to graduation. He called for food sanitation laws and campaigned to have veterinarians chosen to fill public health positions. And while tirelessly defending the veterinary profession, he would take his colleagues to task when he felt they were out of line with his unyielding standards.

"Legends in U.S. veterinary medicine"

“Certainly, for the first 10 years or more, the Review was more representative of the American veterinary profession than any other institution, and it is undoubtedly true that its influence was in large measure responsible for increasing leadership exercised by the Association. The Review not only was a repository for the history of the American veterinary profession; it created history by bringing to veterinarians in this country a new philosophy and new goals to work toward,” wrote Dr. J.F. Smithcors in his 1963 book “The American Veterinary Profession.”

Dr. Liautard wasn’t content with simply talking about how to improve veterinary medicine, either. He had a hand in forming the first national veterinary medical association in the U.S. and in founding some of the earliest U.S. veterinary colleges. In the process, he shaped the American veterinary profession into what it is today.

Organized veterinary medicine

Dr. Liautard was born Feb. 15, 1835, in Paris. He entered the Veterinary School of Alfort in his early teens, later transferring to Toulouse, where he graduated in 1855 or 1856. (His obituary, J Am Vet Med Assoc 1918;53:296-298, claimed that he graduated from Alfort in 1856. However, most authorities acknowledge Toulouse as his alma mater, although they disagree about the year of graduation.)

After spending three years in the French Army, Dr. Liautard emigrated to New York City, where he began practice in 1860 at 205 Lexington Ave. It was also during this time that he not only studied medicine at the University Medical College in New York City, receiving his medical degree in 1865, but also participated in organizing the United States Veterinary Medical Association.

It all started in March 1863 when Dr. Robert Jennings proposed that a convention of veterinary surgeons be called to form a national veterinary association. The inaugural meeting of this new association was held June 9-10, 1863, at the Astor House in New York City.

Selected to act as secretary at the Association’s first meeting, Dr. Liautard recorded the first official report of the USVMA, which became the AVMA in 1898. Seven states were represented. It was also at this gathering that he suggested the motto for the Association, “Non Nobis Solum” (not for us alone), according to his obituary.

The USVMA’s annual meeting for 1866 was held at the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons, of which Dr. Liautard was the nominal head. Many of the later meetings were also held here, or at the American Veterinary College after Dr. Liautard became its dean in 1875.

Dr. Liautard would go on to be elected AVMA president twice, serving from 1875-1877 and from 1886-1887, and held one or more official positions with the Association almost without exception to 1900, according to Dr. Smithcors.

AVR cover
First issue of the American Veterinary Review
Surgery manual
Title page of Dr. Liautard’s surgery manual, which lists his professional and literary achievements

Education efforts take off

Having received an education at one of the world’s premier veterinary teaching institutions, Dr. Liautard wanted Americans to have a similar opportunity in their homeland.

In 1857, an act was passed to establish the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons. Dr. Liautard’s practice was selected for the site of the college, and clinical instruction began Nov. 23, 1864. This was the second veterinary college in the country at the time.

One of four faculty members, Dr. Liautard taught comparative anatomy and surgery. The college had seven students that first year.

But, alas, it was doomed to fail, according to Dr. Liautard, because of “oversights brought on by sickness and ill judgement” by John Busteed, MD, who had been the founder of the NYCVS. Joined by several faculty members, he resigned as dean, professor, and clinical director in 1875.

Dr. Liautard went on to found the American Veterinary College, which provided clinical instruction at 139 W. 54th St. for the next 25 years. He donated his collection of more than 600 anatomic and pathological specimens to the institution. He also continued the tradition of free clinics, which he started in 1874 for the NYCVS at the New York Veterinary Dispensary. “These clinics which are held free of charge to the poor twice a week, bring before the class all forms of diseases in their different stages,” he wrote in his 1877 paper “History and Progress of Veterinary Medicine” (Am Vet Rev 1877;1:5-19).

In 1899, the American Veterinary College combined with the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons to become a department of New York University. The new institution was named the New York-American Veterinary College; it closed in 1922 when New York state concentrated all its efforts at Cornell University.

All told, the NYCVS and AVC produced 1,106 graduate veterinarians. These colleges served as the blueprints for veterinary education as it exists today, wrote Dr. Lester M. Crawford in his article “A Tribute to Alexandre Liautard, the Father of the American Veterinary Profession” (J Am Vet Med Assoc 1976:169:35-37).

Timeline: 1835-1865

Power of the pen

Near the end of his first term as USVMA president, Dr. Liautard took on the role of editor-in-chief of the Association’s new American Veterinary Review—a role that would truly cement his name in veterinary history, Dr. Smithcors wrote.

The first volume was published in January 1877. It had more than 100 pages of original feature articles from U.S. authors. Feature articles and abstracts from overseas authors accounted for another 100 or more pages. A dozen or so pages were devoted to veterinary associations, and some two dozen to AVC activities.

Also appearing in the first issue was Dr. Liautard’s paper “History and Progress of Veterinary Medicine,” which Dr. Smithcors called “the first significant contribution to American veterinary history.”

In it, Dr. Liautard wrote that “little changes (in veterinary medicine) have taken place since Independence Day” in 1776 and lamented this lack of progress.

Timeline: 1875-1918

“In all probability this general condition prevailed a’l over the Country, and it is to be supposed that with a few exceptions, the practice of Veterinary Medicine was left in the hands of ignorant men, stablemen or blacksmiths, and that the absurd and nonsensical notions which we even find in our own days, were to a great extent the treatment of those times,” Dr. Liautard wrote.

Subsequent issues featured him updating members about epizootic outbreaks, veterinary college openings, lobbying efforts with Congress, and developments from European veterinarians.

Perhaps as much as a quarter of the material in the first few volumes was contributed by Dr. Liautard, mostly in the form of editorials and translations from foreign journals, according to Dr. Smithcors. The Review essentially served as the voice of the Association, familiarized American veterinarians with new philosophies, and suggested to them new goals and directions for scientific inquiry.

Dr. Liautard was instrumental, for example, in popularizing among American veterinarians the germ theory of disease—a matter that was still debated in medical circles long after it apparently had been accepted by the veterinary profession (Am Vet Rev 1880;4:52-53).

On a yearly basis, Dr. Liautard tendered his resignation as editor, only to be re-elected or have the matter tabled. Finally in 1881, the Association presented the Journal to him without encumbrance, allowing Dr. Liautard to become its sole proprietor and publisher.

According to Dr. Smithcors: “Dr. Liautard successfully got the USVMA to give up the Journal so he could have full control over it, presumably because of his dissatisfaction with the restrictions placed on him by the Association regarding his management of the Journal. This move allowed him the freedom to strongly criticize, even satirize, the Association without worrying about annual re-election to the editorship. He took advantage of this freedom regularly and to great, constructive effect for many years.”

As the years passed by, Dr. Liautard gradually tempered his criticisms, Dr. Smithcors wrote, and in 1896 he sold an interest in the Review to Dr. Roscoe R. Bell. Then in 1900, at age 65, Dr. Liautard severed his financial interest in the Review and returned to his native France. He did retain the title of senior editor and continued a monthly feature until 1918—a stretch of 41 years.

End of a journey

Although he lived in the United States for 40 years and amassed a small fortune, Dr. Liautard never became a citizen. Eventually, he returned to his homeland, where he maintained an office at 14 Avenue de l’Opera in Paris and a country estate at Bois-Jerome for the remainder of his life.

Dr. Liautard’s grave
Dr. Liautard’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Located in the 93rd division, his tomb is situated almost in front of that of Oscar Wilde.

He kept in touch with his “boys”—American colleagues of all kinds—despite the distance, as he had formed many strong bonds with fellow practitioners.

Dr. Smithcors wrote: “For much of his life here he was referred to affectionately as ‘Frenchy’ by his closest associates—although perhaps not to his face. He was characterized as: very fatherly with his students, stern, and yet intimate, without allowing familiarity. Severe and friendly, strict to all and demanding of each the exact performance of his duties, he was very much liked and yet feared more or less by all.”

Dr. Liautard also spent much of his retirement with his wife and his daughter.

Dr. Liautard
Dr. Liautard’s portrait, taken as AVMA president during his first term

The AVMA made Dr. Liautard honorary president on the occasion of its 50th anniversary at the 1913 meeting in New York, which was held in the Astor House where the AVMA had been born 50 years earlier.

He was the only living charter member at the time. Unfortunately, his wife’s terminal illness prevented Dr. Liautard from returning to New York to accept the award.

Dr. Liautard died April 18, 1918, two days after suffering a heart attack. His son-in-law reported that Dr. Liautard, even though 83, had spent all day on the 16th preparing copy for the Journal as well as writing several letters to American colleagues.

“I have endeavored to make (JAVMA) one of the best means to elevate our profession and to put it on the footing worthy of being its noble representative!” Dr. Liautard wrote in his farewell letter in the Journal (J Am Vet Med Assoc 1915;48:259-260).

Straight from the horse's mouth

(Am Vet Rev 1880;4:398-399) Advocating for meat inspectors:
“The days are gone when veterinary medicine in the United States consisted only in the treatment of diseased animals. The days of the old-fashioned ‘horse doctor,’ and ‘cow-leech,’ are gone by, and within a few years the veterinary profession has taken a foothold amongst us which must become more and more assured every day, and more widely accepted by the public, while the highest positions of Cattle Commissioner and Veterinary Sanitarian have already received acknowledgement of the value and usefulness of their labors. The time has also come when the more modest, but not less useful, position must be created, namely, that of Veterinary Meat Inspector. Boards of Health have Inspectors for most of their specialties, and we are at a loss to learn why, while the physician will make a better Milk Inspector, the veterinarian cannot be selected for the position for which, by his professional connection, he has been fitting himself. It is only in the United States that a man is appointed as an ‘expert,’ to ‘inspect’ and ‘appraise’ goods or wares which he has never studied or learned.”

(Am Vet Rev 1881-1882;5:454-455) Advocating for a national examination before graduation:
“This association ought to elect a Board of Examiners with whom should be lodged the exclusive right of granting the diploma, which should be the only degree identifying and qualifying the regular practitioner. The State schools ought to be in the nature of preparatory institutions, whose students, while receiving acknowledgement of their standing, ought not to be recognized as full veterinary surgeons without passing a final examination by the Board of Examiners which would then constitute what might be called the College of Veterinary Surgeons of America. ... We cannot overlook again another benefit that would result from the formation of such a body. It is the possibility of arriving at the solution of problems which have baffled for years the veterinary profession of Europe, and which already in this country calls for interference. It is the prevention of quackery, or at least the prevention of its increase beyond its present extent.”