Dr. Ray Dillon

by Mitch Emmons

Journalist Walt Mossberg is noted to have said: “I see retirement as just another of these reinventions, another chance to do new things and be a new version of myself.”

Dr. Ray Dillon, a 45-year faculty member at the College of Veterinary Medicine—and the only person on record with such a long-term employment legacy with the college—has taken Mossberg’s philosophy to heart, and then some. As Dr. Dillon tells his story, that is exactly how he has crafted his career. And earlier this year, the Jack O. Rash Professor in Small Animal Internal Medicine, did retire.

Dr. Jamie Bellah, head of the Department of Clinical Sciences, presents the retirement gift to Dr. Dillon.
Dr. Jamie Bellah, head of the Department of Clinical Sciences, presents the retirement gift to Dr. Dillon.

“I came to Auburn for what I thought was going to be for one year,” Dr. Dillon quipped. “Here we are 45 years later, and I really don’t know what happened. Every time I got ready to leave, they gave me a better reason to stay—and that has pretty much been the truth over my whole career.”

Furthering his veterinary education is what led Dr. Dillon to Auburn, earning his DVM, magna cum laude, from Texas A&M University in 1973.

It has been sharing that education, and guiding others to shape their educational and professional future, that has been his greatest treasure and impact. He has taught approximately 5,000 of the college’s nearly 8,000 veterinary graduates and 28 internal medicine residents.

“To me, teaching clinical students internal medicine has always been about developing sound problem-solving thought process, so that new discoveries during their careers will fit into that process.” Dr. Dillon said. “Internal medicine is by nature multi-discipline and it is difficult initially for students to pull facts together from their organ system lectures and put them together, as in a puzzle that becomes a clear picture.”

He was an intern and clinical resident at Auburn, earning his M.S. degree in 1977, and was the first at Auburn to become board certified by examination in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in 1978. He received an MBA in 2001 from Auburn.

Medicine section head for more than 20 years and also interim director of the Scott-Ritchey Research Center, Dr. Dillon’s career at Auburn is storied. He’s been published in more than 200 scientific publications and has made more than 1,500 scientific presentations, many at international forums.

In addition to his clinical duties, he has been directly associated with more than $25 million of research programs, including collaborative research with the University of Alabama at Birmingham Heart Failure Center.

Dr. Dillon with his wife, Cathy, and daughters, Michelle and Haley.
Dr. Dillon with his wife, Cathy, and daughters, Michelle and Haley.

“When I first came to Auburn, the college basically took the best students from Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi,” Dr. Dillon said.Dr. Dillon grew up on a cattle farm in Mercedes, Texas—a small town near the Texas-Mexico border.

“We raised Red Angus cattle and farmed,” he said. “I graduated high school at age 17 and finished veterinary school at age 22 and figured I had time to try an internship. I got an offer to do an equine internship at U.C. Davis and then I got a call from Dr. (B.F.) Hoerlein at Auburn. He had a way of making my decision for me, and he frequently was that way,” Dr. Dillon laughed. “It has just worked out for me.”

Dr. Dillon has been active in gastrointestinal and cardiopulmonary research throughout his career. The emphasis of his research has been directed toward inflammatory lung disease of dogs and cats and molecular mechanisms in myocardial remodeling of dogs. He has been actively involved with various research advisory councils in the pharmaceutical industry, including Idexx, Pfizer (Zoetis), Merial, and Bayer.

His research accomplishments as a clinical scientist have been acknowledged through such awards as the Phi Kappa Phi Scholar for Auburn University, an award for Exceptional Achievement in Auburn University Outreach, and the Auburn University Award for Research Excellence. In 1996, he received the Feline Medicine Award at Small Animal Congress in Italy, and he was honored as the Comparative Medicine Scholar for Tuft’s University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997. In 1999, Dr. Dillon received the AVMA Foundation Award for Outstanding Feline Research.

Dr. Dillon has been recognized for his accomplishments and service to veterinary medicine on multiple occasions. In 2003, Dr. Dillon was presented the Outstanding Alumnus Award by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. In 2013, he received the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine B.F. Hoerlein Research Award. In 2012, he received the ACVIM Foundation Service Award, the first recipient of this award, which acknowledges the efforts of an ACVIM Diplomate.

During a reception held in March honoring Dr. Dillon, many of his colleagues talked about his influences as a scientist, clinician and teacher, including former Dean Thomas Vaughan.

“The contributions of Dr. Ray Dillon during his career as a veterinarian, as an internal medicine specialist, as an educator in the veterinary teaching hospital and the classroom, and as a clinical scientist are local, regional, national and international in their impact,” Dean Vaughan said.

Old friends and colleagues from left, Dr. J. T. Vaughan, Dr. Dillon, Dr. Jan Bartles and Dr. Gerald Hankes.
Old friends and colleagues from left, Dr. J. T. Vaughan, Dr. Dillon, Dr. Jan Bartles and Dr. Gerald Hankes.

Dean Calvin Johnson spoke of Dr. Dillon as a mentor. “As an educator, you have boosted the careers of thousands of Auburn veterinarians, myself included. In the classroom and clinic, you have demonstrated a knack for conveying complex disease processes by weaving them into a portfolio of clinical scenarios, all of which you have personally seen and treated.

“You are a master at teaching the rule and all of its anticipated exceptions…. You are a leader, a mentor, and, at your core, a clinician-scientist.”

Among Dr. Dillon’s many career highlights are a number of academic and research accomplishments, but he said it is the “odd” events that make memorable stories, such as:

  • Being on the veterinary care team for Miss Baker the Space Monkey for NASA in Huntsville, one of the first two animals to be launched into space and safely returned;
  • Installing the first biventricular pacemaker in the famous Birmingham Zoo gorilla Babec, who wore the pacemaker successfully for four years;
  • Helping to pioneer veterinary fiber-optic endoscopy by training with a human endoscopist; and
  • Helping to grow the college’s Internal Medicine Service from a single clinician service to its present-day leading-edge, full-service teaching hospital.

“To me, the key thing that helped me keep my career going was taking a major pivot about every 10-12 years,” Dr. Dillon said. “This helped keep my research fresh and it kept me from burning myself out.

“And every clinical case that is referred to the teaching hospital is different in some nuanced way, so as a clinician in a teaching hospital, it is incredibly stimulating. My research centered on the unanswered questions I encountered on the clinical service; it was translational in nature. ”

Dr. Dillon said that, intellectually, all of that and inter-action with residents will be hard to replace, but he plans to continue his research. “I have research under way that I will be coming back to complete,” he said.

He also has plans to pursue his passions of fly fishing and hunting and spending more time with his wife Cathy, a pharmacist; daughters both medical professionals; and granddaughters. “I was fortunate to come to Auburn at the time that I did and have the mentorship I experienced,” Dr. Dillon said. “It was an explosive time for growth in small animal veterinary practice—a renaissance period for internal medicine—and I am fortunate and proud that I have been a part of that growth.”