LEGENDS: Teacher, researcher, and inventor

Heinrich J. Detmers, 1833-1906
Published on May 15, 2013
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Dr. Heinrich J. Detmers investigated livestock diseases, helped build veterinary education in the U.S., and invented a new type of syringe. (Saddle & Sirloin Club Portrait Collection, Louisville, Ky.​)


Dr. Heinrich J. Detmers helped build veterinary education in the U.S., particularly as the first veterinarian on the faculty at The Ohio State University.

He also identified and described conditions that help spread deadly livestock diseases and developed a high-capacity syringe that could be use for vaccination of animals.

Dr. Detmers, 1833-1906, also known as Dr. Henry J. Detmers, studied veterinary medicine in his native Germany at the Royal Veterinary colleges in Hanover and Berlin and established his first practice in Germany, but he spent most of his career in the U.S., in private clinical practice, with the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Animal Industry, and at Midwestern universities. He immigrated to the U.S. shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1865 and established a veterinary practice in Dixon, Ill., according to “A Century of Excellence,” a 2005 book about the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Howard H. Erickson, one of the book’s authors and an emeritus professor of physiology and history of veterinary medicine for the KSU College of Veterinary Medicine, said Dr. Detmers was “certainly one of the pioneers, along with James Law at Cornell and others around the country” in U.S. veterinary medical education. He was ahead of his time in developing the veterinary curriculum, Dr. Erickson said.

Understanding disease

Dr. Detmers helped to fight diseases even when he and others of his era misunderstood those diseases’ true nature.
In the Bureau of Animal Industry report for 1884, Dr. Detmers observed that Southern cattle fever, or Texas cattle fever, tended to have a long incubation period in Northern cattle when they grazed in a pasture immediately after Southern cattle, yet the disease developed quickly if the Northern cattle grazed in a pasture a few weeks after Southern cattle. He explained that cattle will seek out the same prime grazing areas, but they will move on to different pastures when grass in the prime locations has not had time to grow back.
“As it is well known that the length of the period of incubation depends, to a certain extent at least, upon the quantity and intensity of the infectious principle taken up by the animal organism, no further explanation will be necessary,” he wrote.
In his BAI report “Investigation of South­ern Cattle Fever,” Dr. Detmers said his investigation was intended to “discover the true cause of that apparently mysterious disease,” which he was convinced was transmitted through saliva and indirectly influenced or aided by decaying flora, particularly that of Southern states. His report dismissed transmission through ticks, later determined to be the actual route of transmission for the vector-borne disease. But his efforts detailed the times of year, climate conditions, and animal travels most favorable to spread of the disease.
Before his work on Southern cattle fever, Dr. Detmers, along with Drs. James Law and Daniel E. Salmon, was commissioned by the USDA in 1878 to study hog cholera, Ray Thompson wrote in his 1986 book “The Good Doctors.” In that research, Dr. Detmers named the disease “swine plague” and, in 1878, reported identifying a new bacterial order, Bacillus suis, the book states.
Later research would prove that hog cholera was caused by a viral disease.
But, in 1900—five years after he left academia—Dr. Detmers developed a smoothly operating, large-capacity hypodermic syringe that would be used to vaccinate against hog cholera and could be sterilized without damaging the plunger, according to Dr. J. Fred Smithcors’ 1963 book, “The American Veterinary Profession.”
Dr. Fritz Volkmar wrote in a biographic article about Dr. Detmers that it mattered little that he erred in his investigations because of the shortcomings of methods available at the time, as his research method was sound. That article, published in the April 1933 issue of JAVMA, described Dr. Detmers as a man of integrity, with a sense of duty, indefatigable industry, an unconquerable will, idealism, a wealth of inspiration, independence, and impulsiveness.

Improving education

Before and after his research for the BAI, Dr. Detmers helped teach college students about animal biology and veterinary medicine in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio.
Most notably, as the founding instructor for the School of Veterinary Medicine—later renamed as the College of Veterinary Medicine—at The Ohio State University, Dr. Detmers helped build the institution from a newborn program with no facilities in 1885 to a college with its own hospital by the time he left in 1895. 
“He was a man committed to quality veterinary education and he had strong convictions about what constituted quality,” according to “A Legacy for Tomorrow,” a 1985 book on the 100-year history of The Ohio State veterinary college.
The school’s first building—a 20-by-20 dissection shed—was built in 1886, and Dr. Mark Francis became the first graduate in 1887, according to the OSU centennial book. Dr. Francis’ graduation thesis identified the bacteria responsible for foot rot, and his later work at Texas A&M University would have a prominent role in fighting Texas fever and revitalizing the state’s cattle industry.
The school’s animal hospital was completed in 1891, and the number of veterinary students increased from 12 in 1890 to 21 in 1891.
Dr. Detmers initially started the veterinary program as a four-year course, but within a year, abandoned the plan in favor of a three-year course, according to the OSU history book. A 1960 issue of “The Speculum,” a quarterly publication by the OSU CVM, noted that the four-year course was the first of its length and magnitude, and no students enrolled that year.
But Dr. Detmers’ training under renowned instructors in Germany and his two decades of veterinary service helped him lay the foundation for a model veterinary college that would become a “leader of veterinary thought in North America” and would produce educated and skilled leaders in veterinary medicine, Dr. Volkmar wrote in his 1933 JAVMA article.
Another veterinarian, Dr. Paul Fischer, wrote in the March 1919 edition of The Veterinary Alumni Quarterly from the OSU CVM alumni association that Dr. Detmers had worked until “the final call” to develop the veterinary profession, and no sacrifice had been too great to help his former students. Dr. Fischer graduated from the school during Dr. Detmers’ tenure.
“It was due to Dr. Detmers’ foresight that we can today point with so much pride to the College of Veterinary Medicine of The Ohio State University,” Dr. Fischer wrote. “To his efforts was due, also, the enactment of our first Veterinary Practice Act and, inadequate as the final draft of this statute turned out to be, and little as it resembled its original, the spirit of Dr. Detmers animates it today and this spirit will persist until final triumph marks its goal.”
Those standards influenced by Dr. Detmers and passed by Ohio’s legislature in 1894 even preceded by three years the passage of such a law governing human medicine. The Ohio VMA’s 1970 publication “A History of the Veterinary Profession in Ohio” cited a statement at the time from an unidentified newspaper that, in Ohio, “not every man can treat a jackass but any jackass can treat a man.”
Dr. Detmers also served as the first secretary of Ohio’s veterinary medical licensing board.
During breaks as a professor in Ohio, Dr. Detmers would spend summers in Germany and return to the college to apply the latest ideas and views, Dr. Volkmar wrote. Fellow faculty considered him to be both visionary and impractical, although greatly respected. He imbued in his students enthusiasm for research and a desire for exactness, neatness, and detail.
“Whatever work he undertook, he discharged his duties with such distinction that he challenged the respect of all those whose good opinion was worth having,” Dr. Volkmar wrote.