One for the history books

A visual history of the AVMA’s first 150 years
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When the AVMA (then known as the United States Veterinary Medical Association) was founded in 1863, its founders likely could not have predicted that their organization would come to have a majority of women and small animal practitioners, that members would account for more than 80 percent of the profession, and that, today, veterinarians would employ sophisticated technologies and expertise in specialized areas of practice as well as serve in diverse roles outside the private practice setting. Snapshots in graph form on the following pages show that progression of the AVMA and the profession.

Join the club

Illustration: Three human forms

Founding members of the USVMA agreed to admit, after an oral examination, any veterinary practitioner or student of three years’ standing in the profession who had documents and testimonials related to his qualifications, according to the book “The AVMA: 150 years of education, science, and service.” By contrast, admission in 1913 required graduation from a three-year, accredited school and references from two active members.

The USVMA had about 40 members at its founding, and had a net gain of only one member during its first 10 years.

Then, in 1875, the USVMA admitted 11 new members, or the equivalent of 25 percent of the existing membership.

Infographic: AVMA membership numbers - Source: AVMA membership database

In 1900, two years after becoming the AVMA, the Association had 385 members. By 1913, that number had grown to 1,650, and by 1937, membership totaled 4,600.

AVMA members represented a clear majority of the profession for the first time in 1941, when membership reached nearly 6,650.

Gender studies

Illustration: Male and female symbols

According to JAVMA archives, in 1915, four women veterinarians were practicing in the U.S. By 1968, that number had increased to only a little more than 300; approximately 60 percent were involved in private small animal practice.

About 330 women were enrolled in veterinary colleges in the United States at the time, and the AVMA was receiving about 500 letters monthly from grade school and high school girls who wanted more information about the profession.

Chart: Male and female graduates who joined the AVMA - Source: AVMA membership database

“There is indeed a place for women in veterinary medicine,” Dr. Jean R. Hagan, then-president of the Women’s VMA, said at the time. “They are found in all fields of the profession.”

Women began outnumbering men in veterinary schools during the 1985-1986 academic year, and they accounted for more than half of AVMA members starting in 2011.

What’s your type?

Illustration: Human form next to decision tree

Over time, the AVMA has gone through changes not only in the number of members but also in the kinds of veterinary medicine they practice. For example, horses accounted for 80 percent of work among 8,000 veterinarians in 1900 compared with 10 percent of work among 14,000 in 1920, after the invention of the automobile, which reduced people’s reliance on animals for transport.

Another sea change occurred with the shift toward veterinarians treating more pets than farm animals.

In 1954, about 10 percent of veterinarians in the AVMA Directory & Resource Manual were listed as small animal practitioners. By 2011, about 44,000 of the AVMA’s 83,000 members worked exclusively in companion animal medicine. About 6,700 members also indicated they worked predominantly in companion animal practice, but the figures may overlap, because the AVMA analysis allowed veterinarians to select multiple practice categories.

Infographic: Pie chart of 1931 practitioners' time at work by species - Source: AVMA Committee on Education survey

Furthermore, new fields have opened up over the course of time, including public health, corporate practice, shelter medicine, and wildlife medicine, to name a few.

Infographic: 1960 types of veterinary employment - Source: J Am Vet Med Assoc 1961;138:61-63 Infographic: 1990 types of veterinary employment - Source: AVMA membership database Infographic: 1936: The first year all 48 then-existing states had formed state associations and were represented in what was then the AVMA House of Representatives.

Private gives way to public

Illustration: A building with columns

Between 1852 and 1879, veterinary colleges were all private institutions. Land-grant agricultural colleges and universities then appeared, and the number of public veterinary colleges continued to increase after the last of the private, proprietary veterinary colleges closed in 1927. Since then, only a few private veterinary colleges have been created. The greatest number of private veterinary colleges active in any given year was 11, in the years 1913-1916. Today, there are only two AVMA Council on Education–accredited ones among the 28 U.S. institutions: Tufts University and Western University of Health Sciences.

Bar chart: Historical totals of U.S. veterinary colleges - Sources: J Am Vet Med Assoc 1981;178:583-593; AVMA Membership Directory & Resource Manual

Something for the effort

Illustration: Banded stack of paper money

Information on early practitioners’ salaries is hard to come by. Mention was made in 1987 by Dr. W.W. Armistead, 1957-1958 AVMA president, who wrote: “Pessimism again afflicted the profession during the economic depression of the 1930s. Practitioner incomes dropped precipitously. Many farm animals were not worth the price of professional treatment. Struggling small animal practitioners resorted to boarding, grooming, and dog food sales to make ends meet. Salaried positions paying less than $2,000/yr were sought eagerly by new graduates” (J Am Vet Med Assoc 1987;190:1394-1396).

The first data on veterinary salaries collected by the AVMA appear to be a pair of surveys from 1952 and 1956, which indicated veterinarians’ mean net yearly income rose 45 percent from a mean of $7,374 in 1950 to $10,694 in 1955. While 68 percent of veterinarians surveyed in 1952 had income from outside veterinary practice, only 26 percent did in 1956. The 1956 survey also indicates 78 percent of veterinarians had solo practices. About 70 percent worked 60 hours weekly, and about 40 percent worked at least 70 hours weekly (J Am Vet Med Assoc 1957;131:156-157,199-201).

In the early 1980s, the AVMA began surveying graduating fourth-year veterinary students to learn more about starting salaries, career choices, and, later on, educational debt loads.

Infographic: Mean starting salaries - Source: J Am Vet Med Assoc 1983;182:1128, J Am Vet Med Assoc 1992;201:1685-1686,J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;222:312-314, J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012;241:890-894 Infographic: Face of the profession

Special skills


The AVMA American Board of Veterinary Specialties got its formal start in 1950 as the Advisory Board on Veterinary Specialties when the Executive Board received applications for recognition from the first two veterinary specialty organizations. These applications were from the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and the American Board of Veterinary Public Health. The applications were referred to the AVMA Council on Education and the Association of Deans of American Veterinary Colleges for recommendations. In 1951, the AVMA House of Representatives approved criteria for recognition of veterinary specialty organizations. At the same meeting, the House of Representatives approved recognition of the pathology and public health specialties.

Infographic: The increasing number of veterinary specialists - Source: American Board of Veterinary Specialties