RMM, veterinary medicine’s ‘unofficial philosopher,’ at 90

Cartoonist and writer Robert Morton Miller is too busy to slow down now
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Dr. Robert Morton Miller, the witty sage behind the long-running “Mind Over Miller” column in Veterinary Medicine magazine and the cartoons published under the moniker “RMM,” turned 90 on March 4. He may be too busy to notice, however.

“I only retired from practice,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m busy all day, every day.”

Dr. Robert Morton Miller (Images courtesy of the Miller family archives)

It’s early February, and Dr. Miller and his wife, Debby, have just returned from the Pomona Horse Expo to their home in Thousand Oaks, California, where, in 1956, he opened Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic after receiving his DVM degree from Colorado State University. Three decades later, Dr. Miller had left the practice to travel the world, teaching equine behavior and promoting his imprint training method for newborn foals, which had become a global phenomenon.

The Pomona Horse Expo is one of many equine- and veterinary-related meetings the Millers continue to attend throughout the year. In addition to being a much-sought-after speaker, Dr. Miller has authored more than a dozen books as well as numerous scientific papers and articles for veterinary journals and equine magazines. Several collections of his cartoons have been published and also featured at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Cowboy Cartoonists Art Show.

Dr. Harry Werner, the 2009 American Association of Equine Practitioners president, called Dr. Miller “the unofficial philosopher-in-residence of veterinary medicine” and described him as an exemplar of ethical practice, devoted to patients and their owners, and having a high level of clinical competence. Dr. Werner is not alone in his assessment of Dr. Miller; in 1995 he was awarded the Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award, one of several accolades Dr. Miller has received during his storied career.

“Known to generations of veterinarians by his nom de plume RMM, (Dr. Miller’s) cartoons have brought smiles and laughter to anyone familiar with the trials, tribulations, and joys of veterinary practice,” Dr. Werner said. “They have also caused us to often laugh at ourselves and, perhaps, rethink how we might improve both our clinical and communications skills.

RMM Cartoon

“It is said that ‘the wisdom of the wise is an uncommon degree of common sense.’ If I were to highlight only one of Bob’s many qualities, it would be his unfailing common sense.”

Dr. Miller continues to write and cartoon, using both mediums to channel his singular perspective on veterinary medicine inspired by 32 years as a mixed animal practitioner.

In a typical “Mind Over Miller” column published in an April 2006 issue of Veterinary Medicine magazine, Dr. Miller wrote about the time he helped castrate a captive, 9,000-pound elephant. The chief surgeon was Dr. Murray Fowler—a professor of zoological medicine at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine known as the father of zoological medicine, and since deceased—who, at the time, was the only person to castrate an elephant and have the animal survive. Dr. Fowler arrived at the Sacramento airport carrying a 3 1/2-foot steel écraseur for the procedure. As Dr. Fowler passed through security with his carry-on luggage, the security officer asked him to unwrap the écraseur.

“I can’t,” he explained. “It’s a sterilized surgical instrument.”

The officer lifted the submachine-gun-size package and asked, “What kind of surgical instrument?”

Dr. Fowler, who was dressed in a field jacket, blue jeans, and work boots, said, “It’s for castrating elephants. I’m on my way to Los Angeles to castrate an elephant.”

The security officer reacted to this in a completely unreasonable manner, and Dr. Fowler nearly missed his flight before it was determined he was a professor and not a terrorist.

Assisting Drs. Fowler and Miller in the elephant castration was Dr. James Peddie, then an associate at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Clinic, which had a large wildlife importer for a client. Dr. Peddie had no formal training with non­domestic animals when he joined the practice. As “the new guy,” he didn’t feel qualified to work with exotic animals. Dr. Miller’s response was simple.

“By virtue of your training, you are qualified to work on anything which flies, walks, crawls, slithers, or swims except humans,” recalled Dr. Peddie, who later served as AVMA treasurer.

“You are as qualified as anyone to diagnose and treat these species. To get started in these cases, forget they are an exotic species, and think of them as being a domestic species with which you feel diagnostically and medically comfortable, and proceed ahead.”

Dr. Peddie was with the clinic for more than a year before he realized his mentor was actually the veterinary cartoonist RMM. Looking for an article in the clinic library, Dr. Peddie spied the same book of RMM cartoons he had enjoyed as a student at Cornell University. Flipping through its pages, he recognized the names of several local veterinarians he’d come to know since joining the practice. Then he saw that the book was dedicated to the cartoonist’s wife, Debby.

“I have to admit, it was like being hit by a semitruck when I realized RMM was Robert Morton Miller, DVM, my mentor and partner,” Dr. Peddie said. “He had never said one word about his notoriety.”