LEGENDS: The accidental epidemiologist

Dr. Calvin W. Schwabe fathered a generation of veterinary epidemiologists
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By all accounts, the late Dr. Calvin W. Schwabe was ahead of his time.

Called the father of veterinary epidemiology, Dr. Schwabe recognized the relationship between animal and public health decades before the current one-health movement.

Dr. Schwabe
Dr. Calvin W. Schwabe (Courtesy of the Dr. Calvin W. Schwabe family)

In “Veterinary Medicine and Human Health,” Dr. Schwabe’s seminal work first published in 1964, he wrote: “Veterinary medicine is the field of study concerned with the diseases and health of non-human animals. The practice of veterinary medicine is directly related to man’s well-being in a number of ways.”

An early advocate for integrating aspects of veterinary and human medicines, Dr. Schwabe is even credited with coining the phrase “one medicine,” although the term’s origins are still debated. Among his more noteworthy achievements is establishing a department of epidemiology at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, the first of its kind in any veterinary school in the world.

Dr. Schwabe also made several important scholarly contributions during his 52-year career in such fields as parasitic zoonoses, tropical health, and livestock health in pastoral societies. By the time of his retirement in 1991, he had trained hundreds of students from around the world in public animal disease control.

Ironically, Dr. Schwabe’s esteemed career in epidemiology nearly didn’t happen.

Roots of a legacy

Dr. Schwabe was born March 15, 1927, in Newark, N.J. After receiving his DVM degree from Auburn University in 1954, he was accepted as a doctoral student in parasitology and tropical medicine at Harvard University. He decided to also work toward a master’s in public health.

"Legends in U.S. veterinary medicine" intro text

In a 1991 interview with colleague Dr. Philip Kass, Dr. Schwabe recalled how he initially rebuffed an offer by professor John Gordon, chair of the Department of Epidemiology in Harvard’s School of Public Health, to take an advanced epidemiology course limited to 10 select students. “I hadn’t even taken his basic course. So I said, ‘And, uh, well, thank you very much. But I’m here to get a Doctor of Science in parasitology. And I’m just by-the-by going to pursue the MPH,’” according to an interview transcript.

Once Dr. Schwabe’s adviser explained what an honor it was to be chosen for the advanced course, he apologized to Gordon and accepted his offer. “Personally, as I say, I slipped into this involuntarily,” he told Dr. Kass. Dr. Schwabe would go on to earn an MPH degree from Harvard in 1955 and his doctorate in parasitology the following year.

Beginning in 1956, Dr. Schwabe spent nearly a decade on the medical and public health faculties of the American University in Lebanon. He founded a department of tropical health and a department of epidemiology and biostatistics, and developed a research program on hydatid disease and other parasitic zoonoses. By 1960, Dr. Schwabe was consulting for the World Health Organization on hydatid disease. With the agency’s support, he began studying the disease among cattle societies in East Africa. From 1964-1966, he directed parasitic disease programs for the United Nations.

Around the time “Veterinary Medicine and Human Health” was published, Dr. Schwabe became convinced veterinary education was suffering from a lack of vision. In the book, he wrote: “I felt too often then that our traditional, conservative faculties were being dragged kicking-and-screaming into efforts to provide appropriate training for veterinarians in areas other than the most conventional aspects of private practice.

“My interests from then on were in deliberately and expeditiously preparing veterinary graduates not only to participate—but to assume leadership roles with respect to continually changing and often quite different needs for their contributions in different parts of the world. These interests were in trying to better integrate veterinary capabilities with relevant human needs.”

Veterinary medicine is the field of study concerned with the diseases and health of non-human animals. The practice of veterinary medicine is directly related to man’s well-being in a number of ways.

- Dr. Calvin W. Schwabe

In 1966, Dr. Schwabe joined the faculty at the UC-Davis veterinary school. There, he established the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, now the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology, which he chaired, and served as a professor of epidemiology at the university’s veterinary and medical schools. Notably, UC-Davis awarded the world’s first doctorate in veterinary epidemiology to Dr. Peter Schantz in 1969.

Additionally, Dr. Schwabe instituted a master’s program in preventive veterinary medicine that teaches the principles and strategies of mass disease control and prevention in animals.

“(The MPVM) is globally unique and has contributed to many leaders in veterinary medicine and public health, both nationally and internationally,” observed Dr. Mo Salman, professor of veterinary epidemiology at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

Hardly anyone working today in the field of veterinary epidemiology has not been influenced by Dr. Schwabe. Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou became acquainted with him while pursuing a master’s in veterinary public health and doctorates at UC-Davis. She remembers Dr. Schwabe as a “masterful storyteller” who understood how veterinary medicine had improved human life throughout history.

“He saw that it was human health and well-being that was the unifying theme and cause of veterinary medicine, and his lectures and stories conveyed this in ways that no one else has repeated,” said Dr. Pappaioanou, who went on to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in academia, and for the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

“Coming out of his lectures, you really believed that you could change the world in important ways,” she added.

One Health

Dr. Schwabe was a prolific writer and authored several books on veterinary medicine as well as “Unmentionable Cuisine,” his treatise on food prejudices that described foods ranging from bugs to turkey testicles. Yet, he considered “Veterinary Medicine and Human Health” to be his most important work. The book, which went through three editions, was Dr. Schwabe’s attempt to synthesize diverse relationships between human and animal species within a context of veterinary activities promoting human health.

His view of veterinary medicine was expansive, and he railed against the mindset that limited veterinarians to animal life and well-being. According to Dr. Schwabe, early veterinary medicine was almost inseparable from human medicine.

“Traditional veterinary medicine,” he said, “is concerned in varying degrees with problems in agriculture, biology, and public health. These have been the three natural avenues of development for veterinary medicine. Until recent years, however, progress in extension of organized veterinary interests in public health has been frustrated by ‘accepted beliefs’—long held in the Western world—on the presumed biological uniqueness of man. These erroneous notions have thwarted a general appreciation of veterinary contributions to the development of a science of general medicine.”

Dr. Bruce Kaplan considers Dr. Schwabe a “giant” within the One-Health movement and describes “Veterinary Medicine and Human Health” as an essential explanation for incorporating veterinarians into interdisciplinary collaborations concerning public health. “That was true then and certainly critical in today’s world of emerging and re-emerging zoonotic diseases worldwide,” said Dr. Kaplan, a one-health leader and primary contents editor for the One Health Initiative website.

Dr. Schwabe died June 24, 2006, at his home in Haverford, Pa., from complications of post-polio syndrome. He was 79. In recognition of Dr. Schwabe’s contributions to biology and medicine, his papers and memoirs are housed at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md.

On the email discussion list ProMED, Dr. Peter Cowen, an associate professor of epidemiology, public health, and population medicine at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, wrote the following eulogy: “Cal Schwabe was a great thinker. In addition to the gift of having extraordinary vision about his subjects, he mastered the art of thinking deeply about things. Cal devoted much of his effort to thinking about how veterinary medicine could serve society. He also examined the interface between veterinary medicine and other disciplines. His unique gift was the ability to articulate interrelationships, analogies, historical influences and potential avenues for development into a unified picture so elegant, so full of opportunity, so demanding of the best in people and the profession, that it could hardly fail to inspire.

“Cal Schwabe will be missed. His productivity, his acute evaluation and synthesis of so many topics, and his ability to spot trends and inspire must be replaced. With Cal’s passing, the question of what should a veterinarian do needs new recruits to answer it.”