LEGENDS: A great teacher of great men

James Law, America's first university veterinary professor, raised the bar for academic standards
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Ezra Cornell insisted that the faculty of the university he co-founded in 1865 in Ithaca, N.Y., include a veterinarian. Dr. James Law, a distinguished veterinarian from Edinburgh, Scotland, took the job, making history as the first veterinary professor at an American university.

Dr. James Law
A portrait of Dr. James Law as AVMA president in 1906

Over the next 40 years at Cornell University, Dr. Law taught students who would go on to become giants in the fields of veterinary medicine and animal health research, including Dr. Daniel Salmon, discoverer of the Salmonella bacterium. The Scottish expatriate also helped raise standards for veterinary education in the United States and championed the veterinarian’s role as a protector of animal and human health.


Dr. James Law was born in Edinburgh on Feb. 13, 1838. At 16, he enrolled in Edinburgh Veterinary College, and in 1857, at the age of 19, he graduated with honors. During the final year of his studies, Dr. Law befriended Dr. John Gamgee, a respected professor of veterinary anatomy and physiology, who mentored the young veterinarian and was instrumental in his emigrating to the United States.

Academically, Dr. Law stood head and shoulders above his peers; he was awarded the Highland and Agricultural Society’s medal for best general examination and a special medal for the best examination in general and descriptive anatomy.

"Legends in U.S. veterinary medicine"

Following his graduation, Dr. Law spent a year at the Medical School at the University of Edinburgh. There, his professors included Joseph Lister, the father of antiseptic surgery, who taught him the principles and practice of surgery. Afterward, Dr. Law studied at the veterinary schools of Lyons and Alfort in France. In 1860, he joined the faculty of the New Veterinary College in Edinburgh—started three years earlier by Dr. Gamgee—as professor of veterinary anatomy and physiology and materia medica.

On April 30, 1861, Dr. Law was awarded his diploma by the Board of Examiners of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and became a member of the RCVS. In 1867, he left New College and opened a private practice in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Coming to America

Cornell University was established by the New York State Legislature on April 27, 1865, in large part because of Ezra Cornell, a wealthy farmer and proponent of veterinary medicine, and Andrew White, who would serve as the university’s first president. Both men were members of the state senate and advocates for opening a land-grant institution in New York. Cornell even provided his farm in Ithaca as a site to build the university and half a million dollars of his fortune for an endowment.

Dr. Gamgee, who was in the United States at the government’s request to investigate Texas fever and contagious pleuropneumonia in cattle, heard about the new university and paid a visit to Cornell and White. When he learned the faculty would include a professor of veterinary medicine and surgery, Dr. Gamgee strongly recommended Dr. Law for the position.

“Gamgee saw Law as the star of veterinary medicine’s future in the U.S. and Canada,” explained Dr. Donald F. Smith, dean of Cornell veterinary college from 1997-2007.

During the 19th century, few veterinarians in the United States had academic degrees; those who did had usually been educated in Europe. While traveling in Europe to interview candidates for faculty positions at Cornell, White described the state of veterinary education in America to Dr. Law in a letter dated June 24, 1868: “There is at present hardly anything in the way of scientific veterinary teaching in America—indeed I may safely say there is none and to build up that department is acknowledged general among us to be of the first importance.”

White and Dr. Law met in London on July 2, 1868. White was so impressed with the Scotsman he wrote Cornell the following day: “As you know I have looked through the principal Agricultural and Veterinary Colleges of Europe before arriving here. I have found several excellent candidates but I find Mr. Law vastly their superior. He has published books and articles which have given him a high reputation on this side of the water and personally he is everything we could desire. Modest, unassuming, quiet, clear in his statements, thorough in his work. He cannot fail to succeed.”

Six days later, the university board of trustees appointed Dr. Law as chair of veterinary medicine and surgery. On Aug. 7, Dr. Law sailed with his family from Glasgow to America. He would explain his motivation for leaving Europe’s more advanced veterinary environment. “The call to do pioneer work, the new institution, in the new country, and under new conditions, I welcomed as an opportunity that the Old World could not offer.”

Off and running

Cornell University officially opened its doors Oct. 7, 1868. Ezra Cornell gave a speech during the opening ceremonies in which he underscored the value of veterinary medicine: “The veterinarian will shield him (the farmer) against many losses which are now submitted to as a matter of course by the uneducated farmer, and which, in the aggregate, amount to millions of dollars every year in our state alone.”

Ellis Pierson Leonard writes in “A Cornell Heritage: Veter­inary Medicine 1868-1908” that the requirements for a veterinary degree at Cornell were higher than those at other U.S. institutions, which required at most three years of study. Under the standards set by Dr. Law at Cornell, students were awarded a Bachelor of Veterinary Science after four years and a DVM degree after two additional years.

During those early years, Dr. Law taught all the disciplines of veterinary medicine and stressed the importance of animal health and sanitary science in protecting the public from infectious diseases. Among his first students was Daniel Salmon. In 1876, Cornell granted Salmon a DVM degree, the first to be awarded by an American university. Dr. Salmon went on to discover the Salmonella organism, and in 1884, he established the Bureau of Animal Industry within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Other notable students of Dr. Law’s included Drs. Theobald Smith, Cooper Curtice, Fred Kilborne, and Veranus Moore.

“I believe James Law’s greatest contribution to veterinary medicine was in a very small number of students,” Dr. Smith said, adding that Dr. Law taught just four veterinary students who graduated during the first 25 years of Cornell. “He was a great teacher of a very, very, very few people who graduated with such distinction and went on to great things.”

Dr. Law was a strong proponent of veterinary medicine’s ability to control and eradicate infectious animal diseases. He was held in such high regard that he was appointed to nine state and federal livestock disease commissions from 1868-1896. His investigations included outbreaks of swine plague, lung plague, Texas cattle fever, and pleuropneumonia. In his reports, Dr. Law recommended veterinary inspection and diagnosis, quarantine and slaughter of sick animals, and owner compensation in response to such outbreaks.

In his 2008 paper titled “James Law: America’s First Veterinary Epidemiologist and The Equine Influenza Epizootic of 1872,” Dr. Thomas G. Murnane describes Dr. Law’s report to the commissioner of agriculture as the most substantive report of the outbreak. “The forty-five page report, including some seven pages of weather data reflects Law’s, then 34 years old, broad range of professional talents. A thorough and careful investigator he employed the epidemiological tools of the era and reported his investigation in classical scientific and literary style. He was renowned for his writing ability as noted in comments by Professor Gamgee and President White.”

Infectious animal diseases were a highly contentious issue in the United States during Dr. Law’s day. There was no shortage of veterinarians and farmers who denied the existence of certain diseases, and there was much debate over whether vaccination or slaughter was a better means of controlling the spread of others. Dr. Law frequently lectured farmers about the harms of superstitious practices and imaginary diseases of the day.

Additionally, Dr. Law called for higher veterinary education standards. In 1877, he advocated for the establishment of government-supported veterinary schools: “If the Government can undertake the establishing of a veterinary college, with a sufficiently extended curriculum to make it worthy of the name, it will prove an excellent investment if properly officered and furnished.”

Another of Dr. Law’s ideas was appointing a veterinarian in each state to deal with disease outbreaks in livestock. In July 1885, New York Gov. Bill Hill named Dr. Law state veterinarian, a position he held until 1887, when the USDA sent him to Illinois to eradicate lung plague in cattle.

Dr. Law was an early advocate of the one-health concept. Leonard writes in “A Cornell Heritage” about an 1878 report to the Pennsylvania Board of Agriculture in which Dr. Law stated: “We have seen that in the days of Hippocrates medicine was to a large extent one, the physician was, in many cases, a veterinarian as well, and took lessons in anatomy, physiology, pathology, and therapeutics from his practice on the lower animals. For many, this catholicity of feeling and action produced a breadth of view and soundness of practice which has served to rescue their names from oblivion, and hand them down to us as the fathers of medicine.”

Dr. Law and other Cornell faculty members
Dr. James Law, seated at center, with other Cornell University faculty chairs (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

In the article, Dr. Law suggested dual degrees in human and veterinary medicine: “I propose a new style of practitioner, more comprehensively educated and equipped than either physician or veterinarian—one who has given a longer time to acquire his education, who has earned both degrees by faithful and conscientious study, and who, in the hospitals for men and animals, has made himself thoroughly acquainted with the diagnosis and treatment of maladies of man and beast.”

Dr. Law was an active member of New York’s Tompkins County Medical Society, for which he wrote a series of rules for dealing with a cholera outbreak.

State support

On Jan. 18, 1893, Dr. Law appeared before New York’s State Agricultural Society at Albany to famously explain why veterinary education should receive greater recognition and support. In his speech, titled “A Higher Veterinary Education, Essential to the Maintenance and Improvement of our Live Stock,” he attributed the millions of dollars lost annually to livestock diseases to a national neglect of veterinary science and a lack of properly trained veterinarians.

In condemning the typical method by which meat inspectors were chosen, Dr. Law wrote, “The inspector must therefore be a scientific man. The political appointee, whether butcher, cattle-dealer or veteran, has no place here, unless he adds to his other claims a thorough training in veterinary medicine, chemistry, microscopy, biology, parasitism and bacteriology. The fact that a candidate is a physician or even a veterinarian is not of itself enough. He must show by a theoretical and practical examination before a board of experts that he is familiar with this whole scientific field, and the health of the public may be safely intrusted to his care.”

And finally, Dr. Law criticized the lack of public support for veterinary education in America. He proposed the New York legislature appropriate $200,000 for a faculty and facility to educate veterinarians, and for the creation of a state veterinary examining board.

In May 1893, Cornell trustees persuaded Gov. Roswell Flower and the legislature to provide $50,000 for a dairy building on the university campus. The following year, on March 21, Dr. Law’s dream of a veterinary college at Cornell was realized: An act was passed establishing a state-supported veterinary college at the university and $50,000 in funding. An additional $100,000 was appropriated the following year to build and furnish the new veterinary college.

The trustees appointed Dr. Law in June 1896 as director of the veterinary college and professor of principles and practice of veterinary medicine, veterinary sanitary science, and veterinary therapeutics. The New York State Veterinary College opened its doors on Sept. 21, 1896, to 11 students.

In 1906, two years before his retirement from Cornell, Dr. Law was elected president of the AVMA at the organization’s meeting in New Haven, Conn.

Call-out: Does your practice have a history?