LEGENDS: Innovator in nutrition

Dr. Mark L. Morris Sr. developed therapeutic diets for pets
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Small animal medicine and the pet food industry were still in their infancy in the early 20th century when Dr. Mark L. Morris Sr. began developing therapeutic diets for pets.

Dr. Mark L. Morris Sr. in 1972 (Photos courtesy of the Morris family)

Dr. Morris asked three big questions during his career, said grandson David Morris. Why is small animal medicine not as important to veterinarians as large animal medicine? What is the relationship between nutrition and disease in small animals? Why is there no charity for research on the health of small animals?

In answer, Dr. Morris built a small animal hospital and was founding president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He innovated therapeutic diets that became the basis of a family business, and later, Hill’s Pet Nutrition. And, he established Morris Animal Foundation to fund studies in small animal medicine.

Small animal practice

“Mark Morris: Veterinarian,” by Willard C. Haselbush, chronicles the life of Dr. Morris through the early 1980s. He was born in 1900 as the son of a shopkeeper in rural Colorado. His love of science was what led him into the field of veterinary medicine.

After earning his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 1926, Dr. Morris bought a mixed animal practice in New Jersey.

“This was an era of barn calls by day and evenings spent treating cats and dogs with problems or diseases that couldn’t be identified by casual examination,” according to the Morris biography.

But Dr. Morris began applying his scientific approach to the treatment of small animals, borrowing a dairy’s laboratory to analyze samples from pets. By 1928, he had built Raritan Animal Hospital to focus on small animal practice.

In late 1928, Dr. Morris married his wife, Louise. David Morris said his grandfather and grandmother were great partners. Dr. Morris had the ideas, and she helped him figure out the best opportunities.

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

During the 1932 AVMA Annual Convention, Dr. Morris participated in a meeting of practitioners to establish an organization to set standards for small animal hospitals. He ended up as the first president of the American Animal Hospital Association.

All the while, Dr. Morris was collaborating on research in canine medicine, including nutrition.

Hill’s Pet Nutrition

According to his biography, Dr. Morris’ lifelong devotion was the then-unheard-of doctrine “that food can function similarly to medicine and that proper nutrition can aid in managing many diseases.”

In his practice, Dr. Morris developed a therapeutic diet for dogs with kidney disease. He began sending clients home with a dry meal to mix with fresh protein.

A turning point came when Dr. Morris met a blind man named Morris Frank and Frank’s guide dog, Buddy. Dr. Morris diagnosed kidney disease in Buddy, and the Morrises began canning the therapeutic diet for him.

Other customers were soon to follow. Dr. Morris added a new diet for growing puppies and pregnant dogs. In 1948, Dr. Morris contracted with Hill Packing Co. of Topeka, Kan., to take over the canning.

The Morrises moved to Topeka in 1951 with their children, Ruth and Mark Jr. The children would go on to join the family business, Ruth in public relations and Mark Jr. in product development. Mark Jr. earned his veterinary degree from Cornell in 1958.

Dr. Stan Teeter recalls when he started working with Mark Sr. in the late 1950s. Dr. Teeter was stationed at an Air Force base in Topeka where the sentry dogs were faring poorly for dietary reasons.

“The pet food industry was not that up on being nutritionally sound,” Dr. Teeter said. “The whole pet food industry started as way to increase the value of byproducts, either from the cereal or the meat industry. It was all built on palatability and price.”

Dr. Morris with a canine subject

Dr. Teeter met with Dr. Morris for a consultation in a home office that was really a third-floor attic closet. The sentry dogs improved greatly on one of Dr. Morris’ products.

In his time off, Dr. Teeter started going to Dr. Morris’ laboratory to help with dietary research. After practicing for a while back home in Phoenix, he returned to Topeka in the 1960s to develop products with Mark Sr. and Mark Jr. He is now chair of the Morris Animal Foundation.

“Mark Sr. was just a wonderful person to work with,” Dr. Teeter said. “He was always willing to listen to your ideas and had good discussions of possibilities to solve a problem.”

Throughout his career, Dr. Morris Sr. kept in touch with practitioners as part of his extensive “library” of contacts. He served as the 1960-1961 AVMA president.

Eventually, Mark Jr. took over the family business. The partnership between the Morris family and Hill Packing Co. evolved into Hill’s Pet Nutrition, owned by Colgate-Palmolive since 1976. David Morris is president of spinoff ZuPreem, which makes food for zoo animals and exotic pets.

Morris Animal Foundation

Dr. Morris perceived a need for research on all aspects of small animal health, not just nutrition. He saw dogs being used for research in human medicine, Dr. Teeter said, but thought it was time to use dogs in research to benefit the health of dogs.

In 1948, Dr. Morris established the Buddy Foundation to fund studies in small animal health. He set aside half a cent of his royalties per can of dog food toward the endeavor.

The name was changed to the Morris Animal Foundation by the 1950s. The foundation is now an independent nonprofit organization that funds studies in canine, feline, equine, and wildlife medicine. Members of the Morris family remain among the trustees.

“We have made progress against animal disease and through that effort have made contributions also to human health,” Dr. Morris told his biographer in 1982.

Dr. Morris died at age 92 in 1993.

“I think that he was very proud to be a veterinarian. If he was here, he would see how significant the products have become,” David Morris said. “And I think that he would be thrilled about all of the activities and all of the advancements and really what we’re trying to achieve at the foundation. I think he’d be very, very proud, and hopefully we’re all living up to his expectations.”