John Melcher, first veterinarian elected to Senate, dies at 93

Montana Democrat known for his devotion to agriculture and veterinary medicine
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Dr. Melcher
Montana Sen. John Melcher accepting the 2003 AVMA Meritorious Service Award in Denver.

Dr. John Melcher, a Montana Democrat and the first veterinarian elected to the Senate who advocated for agriculture and veterinary interests and the preservation of federal lands, died April 12 at his home in Missoula, Montana. He was 93.

On April 19, the Senate passed a resolution honoring their colleague's humility and integrity, devotion to his family and home state, and years of public service. Members of the veterinary community also celebrated Dr. Melcher's life. "Senator Melcher was devoted to the AVMA, the profession, agriculture, and Montana," said Dr. Mark Lutschaunig, director of the AVMA Governmental Relations Division.

"Everyone on Capitol Hill knew Senator Melcher, and he remembered everyone's name," he said. "I remember one time we were in the Capitol, and he saw one of the Capitol Police officers—knew his name, asked about his family, including his daughter, who was interested in veterinary medicine."

Dr. Bernadette Dunham worked at the AVMA GRD and with the senator during the mid-'90s before leading the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine. "Dr. Melcher never hesitated to speak his mind, and he tenaciously fought for what he believed in, be it an environmental issue or an animal welfare issue," said Dr. Dunham, now a lecturer at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

"I learned so much from Dr. Melcher during my eight years at the AVMA GRD, and I continue to pass it forward, as he did so generously," she added.

John David Melcher was born Sept. 6, 1924, in Sioux City, Iowa. He attended the University of Minnesota but left after only a year to join the Army in 1943. He served with the 76th Infantry Division in Europe and was part of the Normandy invasion. In 1945, Dr. Melcher was wounded in Germany and awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman's Badge, and the Bronze Star.

He was discharged from the Army in 1945 and married a former high school classmate, Ruth Klein. They had six children and remained together until Ruth's death in 2015.

Dr. Melcher earned a DVM degree from Iowa State University in 1950. He and his family moved to Forsyth, Montana, where he opened Yellowstone Veterinary Clinic, a mixed practice that he ran until his election to Congress in 1969.

His political career began in 1953 as an alderman in Forsyth, a small city in eastern Montana. Two years later, Dr. Melcher was elected mayor and was twice reelected. Next, he won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1960, then a seat in the state Senate in 1962. Dr. Melcher's first run at national office in 1966 was unsuccessful. Three years later, however, he was elected one of Montana's two U.S. representatives after he won a special election to replace a retiring congressman.

Dr. Melcher was reelected to the House of Representatives three more times. During those eight years, he took a leading role in animal welfare legislation, such as introducing a bill that would appropriate $10 million for animal research. The funding appeared to be a shoo-in after passing the House and Senate. Then President Gerald Ford called.

"We knew each other well from time in the House together," Dr. Melcher told JAVMA News in a 2005 interview. "He called me to say, 'John, I'm sorry. I know you've worked to get that bill passed. You actually got it out of the House twice, but I called just to tell you it's going to be my first veto.'

Drs. Melcher, de Jong, and Allard
Senator Melcher with Dr. John de Jong, current AVMA president-elect, and former Colorado Sen. Wayne Allard, a veterinarian, at the 2007 AVMA Political Action Committee luncheon in Washington, D.C.

"I was shocked. 'Why is that, Mr. President?' He said, 'It's a new program, and we're having no new programs.' 'But research in animal health is not new, Mr. President,' I replied. 'Yes, but (the bill) is a new slant. I'm very sorry, John, I hate to tell you this, but I have to do it.' So I thanked him for calling me; it was very nice of him," Dr. Melcher said. The congressman introduced the bill again, this time during the Carter administration, and it was signed into law.

In 1976, Dr, Melcher was elected to the U.S. Senate—the first veterinarian to become a senator—and he was reelected twice. He sponsored an amendment to the Animal Welfare Act in 1984 that required the psychological well-being of nonhuman primates to be considered in research. Jane Goodall, the famed primatologist, praised the amendment and gave him a copy of her book "The Chimpanzees of Gombe" in which she wrote the following inscription: "When this bill is well and truly implemented, the difference in the lives of hundreds of animals will truly be great."

Dr. Melcher never hesitated to speak his mind, and he tenaciously fought for what he believed in, be it an environmental issue or an animal welfare issue.

Dr. Bernadette Dunham, former director, Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, and former acting director, AVMA Governmental Relations Division

Following Dr. Melcher's narrow reelection defeat in 1988, a columnist with The Washington Post described his Senate career as one having helped "farmers, miners, the elderly, the hungry and a constituency of the world's poor. If all those who had been helped by him—from Washington's homeless women to the Bangladesh starving—could have voted in Montana, (Dr. Melcher) would always have run unopposed."

Dr. Melcher remained in Washington, D.C., opening a consulting and lobbying firm that included such clients as the AVMA and the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. He was unapologetic about his work, saying in the 2005 JAVMA News interview that lobbying is essential to the political process: "What I do is lobby. I'm not one of those who thinks lobbying is shameful. Lobbying is one way that the public can let Congress and the Executive Branch know what is important and how bills ought to be shaped.

"That's what I do for the AVMA, and I'm very proud of it."

The late senator was known for his contributions to passage of the "AVMA legislative initiative"—the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994—by the 103rd Congress, entrusting veterinarians with discretionary extra-label drug use. A sample of the other veterinary-related legislation he lobbied for includes the National Senior Citizen Pet Ownership Protection Act; the National Veterinary Medical Services Act, which became the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program; and the Veterinary Public Health Workforce and Education Act.

Dr. Melcher received numerous accolades from the veterinary profession, including the AVMA President's Award and AVMA Meritorious Service Award, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine's Centennial Medal. Since 2007, the AAVMC has been giving out the AAVMC Senator John Melcher, DVM Leadership in Public Policy Award.

He is survived by five children; a brother, half sister, and half brother; 10 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Another child of Dr. Melcher's died at age 6.

More June 15 JAVMA obituaries

Related JAVMA content:

Dr. John Melcher, superdelegate (June 15, 2008)

A heart for politics (May 1, 2005)

Top Honors (Sept. 1, 2003)​