LEGENDS: The father of veterinary public health

By promoting the one-health concept, James Harlan Steele has enhanced the lives of animals and humans
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Dr. James Law, America’s first university-based veterinary professor and an early advocate of the one-health concept, envisaged a “new style of practitioner” who was “more comprehensively educated [and] more thoroughly acquainted with the diagnosis and treatment of maladies of man and beast” (see JAVMA “Legends” profile, Feb. 1, 2013). Dr. James Harlan Steele, who became known as the father of veterinary public health, certainly embodied Dr. Law’s vision.

Dr. James Harlan Steele
Dr. James Harlan Steele as a National
Institutes of Health intern, circa 1947 (Courtesy of Dr. Craig N. Carter from “One Man, One Medicine, One Health: The James H. Steele Story“)

Dr. Steele arrived at veterinary medicine almost by accident. As a young man considering his career path, he was cautioned by friends that he would be better off painting houses. With the encouragement of his first wife, Aina, Dr. Steele persisted and earned his DVM degree from Michigan State University in 1941.

Since that time, he has dedicated his life and career to advancing understanding of the connections between human and animal health. Dr. Michael Cates, former chief of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps and a student of Dr. Steele’s at the University of Texas, told JAVMA News, “I think his greatest accomplishment has been his extraordinary leadership regarding the inextricable linkages between animal and human health, resulting in a fantastic expansion of interest and expertise throughout our world which will continue for generations to come.

“I don’t think any other person has had such a global impact on veterinary public health as Dr. Jim Steele.”

Working in uncharted territory during the 1940s and ‘50s, Dr. Steele pioneered the field of veterinary public health, earning countless achievements along the way. It would be difficult to find a veterinarian more highly regarded by his peers or who has done more to elevate the status of the veterinary profession in the eyes of government and the public alike.


Born in 1913, Dr. Steele grew up in Chicago during the tumult and aftermath of World War I. He attended local schools and enrolled in classes offered by the YMCA College (now Roosevelt University) in Chicago before earning his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University. After graduation, Dr. Steele evaluated his options and even considered pursuing a career in forestry.

"Legends in U.S. veterinary medicine"

Still, he could never shake an interest that had been with him since childhood. As a boy growing up during the waning days of the Great War, Dr. Steele wondered how the United States could defeat the German army but be leveled by the 1918 influenza epidemic. Even then, the concept of infectious disease enthralled him.

Accepted to the College of Veterinary Medicine at MSU, Dr. Steele found his interest only strengthened. When numerous classmates came down with brucellosis, he pursued an internship at the Michigan Health Department to expand his knowledge of zoonoses, specifically investigating how diseases spread from animals to humans.

In a JAVMA article (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000:217:1813-21) about the history of public health and veterinary public service, Dr. Steele explained that “the brucellosis epidemic among veterinary students and others in the bacteriology building at Michigan State College raised epidemiologic questions about how Brucella organisms were spread. Up to then, the disease was believed to be caused by direct exposure or ingestion of milk containing Brucella bacteria. Airborne organisms had not been thought of.”

Reaching the end of his veterinary studies, the young Dr. Steele, then president of the student chapter of the AVMA at MSU, paid his first visit to AVMA headquarters, located at that time in Chicago at the intersection of S. Michigan Ave. and E. Harrison St. While there, he met former AVMA Executive Secretary Dr. John Hardenbergh, who provided strong support for Dr. Steele’s aspirations to pursue a career in public health.

“Why don’t you fly under one flag?”

Following his natural interest in zoonotic pathogens, Dr. Steele earned a Master of Public Health from Harvard University, the lone veterinarian in a class of physicians. Graduating in 1942, he discovered that most job opportunities in public health required a medical degree. Discouraged and considering medical school, Dr. Steele said he consulted with Cecil K. Drinker, MD, dean of Harvard’s School of Public Health, who told him, “Steele, it’s quite apparent. Why don’t you fly under one flag?” “And that’s the best advice I ever got,” Dr. Steele told JAVMA News. “That was the beginning.” Abandoning his plans of further advanced education, Dr. Steele resolved to stay true to his veterinary roots.

Commissioned as a sanitarian in the United States Public Health Service on the 1st of November 1943, Dr. Steele spent most of World War II in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. He coordinated milk and food sanitation and evaluated zoonotic threats on the islands, which had become isolated because of the war. There, Dr. Steele researched brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

Attendees at first meeting of the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Zoonoses
Dr. Steele travels to Geneva for the first meeting of the World Health Organization Expert Committee on Zoonoses. Pictured are Dr. J. Verge; Dr. Martin Kaplan, the first WHO director of veterinary public health; a WHO representative (name unknown); Sir Daniel Cabot, UK chief veterinary officer during World War II; Dr. Steele; and Dr. K.V.L. Kesteven. (Courtesy of Dr. Craig N. Carter from “One Man, One Medicine, One Health: The James H. Steele Story“)

As the European campaign came to an end, Dr. Steele anticipated reassignment to the Pacific theater, but Japan surrendered in August 1945. He then expected to become a food and milk sanitarian in Kansas City, but a conversation with then–U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Joseph Mountin, MD, wildly altered his career trajectory. Dr. Steele recounted the conversation (Vet Herit 1997:20:19-24): “Dr. Mountin’s challenge to me was, ‘What are you veterinarians going to do for the public health now that the war is over?’ This was my opportunity to tell him what VPH could do.

“The animal diseases communicable to man were a largely unexplored area. I described some of the known zoonotic diseases. Dr. Mountin asked questions as to prevalence and control. My answers were mainly, ‘We don’t have any data, nor do we know how to control these zoonoses.’ Finally Dr. Mountin said, ‘Steele, it is quite apparent that we have a problem and a lot of ignorance—let us explore it.’”

“If you get in trouble, don’t come back”

In November 1945, Dr. Steele presented a lengthy report titled “Veterinary Public Health,” representing the first time that term had been used, to Dr. Mountin and U.S. Surgeon General Thomas Parran Jr., MD. The report outlined the risks of zoonotic disease and the benefits of employing veterinarians to research and respond to the causative pathogens. Dr. Mountin was persuaded and sent Dr. Steele to the National Institutes of Health to gather zoonotic disease information, with some final words of encouragement: “If you get in trouble, don’t come back.”

Under the tutelage of Dr. B.T. Simms, chief of the former Bureau of Animal Industry in the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Steele spent the next two years traveling to places such as Brazil, Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan, investigating outbreaks and the human health implications of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, brucellosis, and salmonellosis. Dr. Steele credits Dr. Simms as being a “helluva man and a dedicated mentor who offered guidance and moral support” during these formative years.

When Dr. Mountin decided to evaluate the progress of the VPH program in March 1947, he was impressed. Capitalizing on the project’s recent success, Dr. Steele urged the assistant surgeon general to consider establishing a Veterinary Medical Officer category within the USPHS. His report was well-received, and the surgeon general signed an amendment to the USPHS regulations in the summer of 1947, thereby creating the VMO position. Alongside an impressive cadre of veterinarians, Dr. Steele was inducted into the first class of Regular Corps VMOs in February 1948. Since that time, hundreds of regular and reserve VMOs have served in the United States and worldwide, benefiting human and animal populations alike.

Lifetime of achievement

During the postwar period, Dr. Steele was a consistent champion of veterinary medicine within the public health domain. His VPH framework served as a model for similar programs undertaken by the World Health Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and numerous countries. Dr. Steele became chief veterinary officer of the USPHS in 1950 and retired as the first assistant surgeon general for veterinary affairs in 1971. During his tenure, Dr. Steele worked at the Geneva-based WHO as a consultant to the late Dr. Martin Kaplan, the organization’s first director of veterinary public health.

On behalf of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Steele attended the first WHO Expert Committee on Zoonoses meeting in 1950. He then chaired the second meeting in 1965. The meetings brought together the most eminent scholars within the world of zoonotic disease and emphasized the need for international collaboration and common goals. In outlining the mission of these committees, Dr. Steele found wisdom in the insight of his longtime colleague Dr. Calvin Schwabe. In the textbook “Veterinary Medicine and Human Health,” Dr. Schwabe wrote: “The final objective of veterinary medicine does not lie in the animal species that the veterinarian commonly treats. It lies very definitely in man, and above all in humanity.”

Legacy of success

After his retirement from the USPHS, Dr. Steele joined the faculty at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. In 1983, he was appointed professor emeritus there, and he continues to remain active on campus, providing wisdom, insight, and words of encouragement to countless students and professionals alike.

Dr. Steele
In recent times

During his tenure at the University of Texas, Dr. Steele helped to compile and edit the CRC (Press’) Handbook Series in Zoonoses, the first comprehensive collection to address diseases shared by humans and animals. First published between 1979 and 1984, the tome (now in its second edition) remains a staple of public health curricula throughout the world. And as testament to his dedication to public health, Dr. Steele remains active in the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society, an organization that he founded in the 1980s. He is also a founder and honorary diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Steele has received numerous awards throughout his storied career. Among them, he earned the USPHS Order of Merit in 1963 and was recognized as an honorary member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the CDC in 1975. He was awarded the XII International Veterinary Congress Prize by the AVMA in 1984. In 2006, Dr. Steele received the Surgeon General’s Medallion. Most recently, Dr. Steele’s granddaughter, Jamie Steele, accepted the Medal of Merit on his behalf from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in May 2012. The commendation recognized Dr. Steele’s “meritorious service to world animal health” and was strongly supported by Dr. John R. Clifford, deputy administrator and chief veterinary officer for the Veterinary Services program of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Despite all his formal achievements, Dr. Steele is most proud of his accomplishments in the classroom and the potential of his students. This sense of appreciation is shared by his pupils. His former student Dr. Cates adds, “Dr. Steele has been relentless in his support of my career. Whatever it took—advice, encouragement, compliments, challenges, or attendance at important events—he did it all, pushing me to do even more for VPH.

“What is amazing is that he did the same for countless others around the world.”

Voicing the thoughts of so many others, Dr. Cates lauded Dr. Steele for the high bar he set. “He has set a tremendous, unparalleled example of intelligence, passion, and tenacity in his own VPH career for me and others to emulate. He often points to other people who went before him, but to me, he is the one person I think of when you mention VPH.”

Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Howard Erickson, emeritus professor of physiology and the history of veterinary medicine at Kansas State University, lauds Dr. Steele for being “a pioneer in veterinary public health, a legend, who is certainly an inspiration to anyone who has read about him or who has met him.”

This month, Dr. Steele celebrates his 100th birthday, as the veterinary world collectively celebrates his numerous contributions to the profession. Even at the age of 100, his mind is fixed on the future. In his words: “I look forward to my 107th birthday when I can finally say, ‘Hindsight being 2020, yep—we got it right.’”

Michael J. White is a second-year veterinary student at Kansas State University and a recent JAVMA News extern.

Steele centennial

Dr. Steele’s colleagues are planning several events this July at the AVMA Annual Convention in Chicago to celebrate his 100th birthday, April 3. They include recognition at the AVMA Opening Session on Friday, July 19; Dr. Steele in the exhibit hall on Saturday signing copies of the new birthday edition of his biography by Dr. Craig Carter, “One Man, One Medicine, One Health: The James H. Steele Story”; a Sunday evening reception at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place; and on Monday, a special scientific session by the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society and Dr. Carter’s presentation at the Public and Corporate Practice session. For event details, call Dr. Carter at (859) 321-4890 or email him at craig [dot] carteratuky [dot] edu (craig[dot]carter[at]uky[dot]edu).