125-Year Survivor

By Dr. Tom Vaughan ’55 | Dean Emeritus

Between 1852 and 1938, 41 independent (proprietary) schools of veterinary medicine were started, in addition to 11 other schools (nine of which were at state land-grant colleges), making a total of 52 schools. By 1900, 20 schools were closed, 14 more by the end of World War I (1920), six more by 1933, and the last one by 1947. Eleven of the closures were affiliated with universities. Auburn, one of the 11 survivors, was the only one below the fortieth parallel (Mason and Dixon Line) stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and angled upward from Colorado to Washington State to account for well over two-thirds of the land mass of the 48 contiguous states. 

From Auburn’s inception in 1856 until the end of the 20th century, the nation experienced the Civil War that devastated the South and bankrupted nine Confederate States, the Spanish American War, two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. During this same time, the country suffered the economic panic of 1857; the depressions of 1873-1879, 1882-1885, and 1893-1896; the depression of 1920-21 (invasion of the boll weevil and the farmers’ depression), and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Post-World War II did not see any major depressions, but did witness a number of recessions—seven between 1954 and 1992. 

Partly a reflection of these turbulent times, but principally the result of a protracted recovery from the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era (nine southern states were under martial law and occupied by Federal 

troops for 12 years after the war, 1865-1877), the economy of the region lagged badly. According to agricultural statistics of the U.S. Government Census, the total value of farm property in Alabama did not return to pre-war values until the 1910 (13th) census. Also, during this time, the new system of land tenure (tenant farmers and share-croppers) sprang up, changing the entire dynamics of labor. 

Contributing to this turn-of-the-century recovery period was the increasing industrialization of the state, including cotton manufacturers, commercial fertilizer plants, and the iron and coal industries of North Alabama. Mechanization of agriculture was necessitated and accelerated by the changes in farm labor supply, including the decline of reliance on horses and mules for transportation and traction. 

Public health and animal diseases paralleled the changes in the equine industry. Although Pasteur had announced his revolutionary germ theory in 1860 and Koch had revealed the cause of tuberculosis in 1882, the scientific world and particularly the world of medicine were exasperatingly slow to accept the concept of germs causing disease. Applications of vaccination, though introduced by Edward Jenner in 1796, and antiseptic surgery advanced by Joseph Lister in 1865, were decades delayed due to this intransigence, at the unnecessary loss of countless thousands of lives. Animal plagues such as bovine pleropneumonia, Texas tick fever, hog cholera, and rabies (just in the U.S.) were no less costly. 

So, it was against this backdrop of geopolitical and scientific factors that, of all pretenders, Auburn should presume to start the first School of Veterinary Medicine in the entire Southern United States. How could it ever hope to survive? 

Nor have we begun to catalogue the succession of obstacles that lay in its path. Chronic financial woes, lack of trained teachers that had to be made out of a first generation of licensed veterinarians in a new profession, the usual litany of competing interests that only academia can invent, new schools in the territory, and a changing profession, splintering into a bewildering number of specialties that rival the Protestant Church. What were eleven schools in 1944 grew to 18 by 1957 and to 27 by 1979, eight in the South. Three more have been added since then, with more offshore. What were just general practice veterinarians before World War II are now at least 22 specialties recognized by the AVMA, 32 or more with subdivisions, plus another 87 (and counting) representing every interest under the sun. 

So how is one traditional institution supposed to survive these myriad challenges and maintain its identity? Financial resources are not the answer. Constancy of administration is as varied as is the makeup of boards of trustees, university presidents, and, for a state university, the governor and the legislature. 

Remarkably, veterinary medicine at Auburn was set on a good compass bearing with its founders, and that goes for its antebellum beginnings, preordaining those benefits we may take for granted today. All those values we hold dear — faith, hope, love, justice, prudence, fortitude, duty, honor — however you order the list, were present in its founders. Time has dimmed the account of their travails; only benchmarks remain, benchmarks that find expression like its endurance of misfortune, for its doughty refusal to accept reversals of fate, for its undaunted optimism and good spirits in the classroom as well as on the playing field, and its determination, as Mr. Faulkner said, not merely to endure, but to prevail. 

Auburn is a family, and family is tradition. 

“What you have as tradition, 

Take now as task, for thus you make it your own.” 

— Goethe 


Yr humbl and obdt svt,