Dr. Leon H. Russell, a former AVMA president who became the first American president of the World Veterinary Association, has died. He was 88.
Born March 15, 1931, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dr. Russell dedicated his life to teaching and research, focusing his studies on areas such as public health, epidemiology, medical mycology, zoonotic diseases, and food toxicology. His research played an important role in the development and epidemiologic evaluation of oral vaccines used to help control rabies in coyotes and gray foxes in Texas.
Dr. Russell joined the faculty at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences in 1959 to launch an epidemiology course at the college. By the time of his retirement in 2017, Dr. Russell was considered a visionary leader, an authority in both veterinary medicine and food safety, and an advocate for international veterinary medicine.
"Dr. Russell was a firm believer in encouraging the advancement of the education of veterinarians and sharing knowledge so that we can raise the bar for veterinary medicine throughout the world," said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, dean of the Texas A&M veterinary college.
"He was a mentor to so many of our leaders in showing us exemplary leadership, wisdom, humility, and grace," said Dr. John de Jong, AVMA president. "Dr. Russell was an incredible trailblazer for veterinary medicine, and our entire profession is better off because of his dedication to advocating for veterinary medicine on the global stage."
After receiving his veterinary degree in 1956 from the University of Missouri, Dr. Russell went on to earn a master's in public health in 1958 from Tulane University and a doctorate in veterinary microbiology in 1965 from Texas A&M.
Throughout his career, Dr. Russell was active in organized veterinary medicine. He was the 1984-85 president of the Texas VMA and the 1993-94 president of the AVMA. In a 2010 profile published after he received the AVMA Award, Dr. Russell told JAVMA News that he sought leadership positions not for personal gain but to improve the organization.
"I didn't have a goal of being president, actually had no desire to do that," he said. "Sometimes you get there, and you want to get some things done."
As AVMA president, Dr. Russell advocated strongly for passage of the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994 to allow extralabel drug use by veterinarians.
He was elected as the first American president of the WVA in 2005. The association is a federation of 95 veterinary organizations representing over half a million veterinarians around the world. Over the next three years as WVA president, Dr. Russell paid special attention to promoting increased WVA participation with other international organizations.
Dr. Russell is survived by his wife of 67 years, Martha; two sons; two grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.