James Steele

4 January 2013

Dr. James Harlan Steele

In the Feb. 1, 2013 issue of JAVMA, Dr. James Law was profiled as America’s first university veterinary professor. In addition to the myriad innovations that he introduced to American veterinary medicine, Dr. Law was also an early advocate of the one-health concept. In an 1878 report to the Pennsylvania Board of Agriculture, he wrote: “We have seen that in the days of Hippocrates medicine was to a large extent one, the physician was, in many cases, a veterinarian as well.” In the article, Dr. Law envisaged a “new style of practitioner” that was “more comprehensively educated [and] more thoroughly acquainted with the diagnosis and treatment of maladies of man and beast.” Today, it seems clear that the image Dr. Law envisioned is embodied in the person of Dr. James Harlan Steele.
Now regarded as the father of veterinary public health (VPH), Dr. Steele arrived to veterinary medicine almost by accident. As a young man considering the optimal career path, friends discouraged his ultimate choice, cautioning that he would be better off painting houses. Despite their efforts, Dr. Steele persisted – earning his DVM from Michigan State University in 1941.

Since that time, he has dedicated his life and career to articulating the confluence of human and animal health. According to Dr. Michael Cates, former US Army Veterinary Corps Chief and a student of Dr. Steele’s at the University of Texas: “I think his greatest accomplishment has been his extraordinary leadership regarding the inextricable linkages between animal and human health, resulting in a fantastic expansion of interest and expertise throughout our world which will continue for generations to come. I don’t think any other person has had such a global impact on VPH as Dr. Jim Steele.”
Working in uncharted territory during the 1940’s and 50’s, Dr. Steele pioneered the field of VPH and earned countless achievements along the way. Since he joined the industry in 1941, it is difficult to find a veterinarian who is more highly regarded by his peers, or who has made such a profound impact on the profession. Inserting himself in numerous appointments since that time, Dr. Steele has elevated the status of the veterinary profession in the eyes of our government and the public alike.

Beginnings

Born in 1913, Dr. Steele grew up in Chicago during the tumult and aftermath of the Great War. He attended local schools and enrolled in classes from the YMCA College (now Roosevelt University) in Chicago, but earned his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University (MSU). Considering his career options after graduation, Dr. Steele undertook a brief stint selling insurance and even considered forestry.

Still, he could never shake an interest that had burgeoned since childhood. As a boy growing up during the waning days of World War I, Dr. Steele wondered how the United States could defeat the German army but be leveled by the 1918 influenza epidemic. Even then, the concept of an infectious disease enthralled him.

Accepted to the College of Veterinary Medicine at MSU, this interest only broadened. When numerous classmates became infected with brucellosis, Dr. Steele pursued an internship at the Michigan Health Department in order to expand his knowledge of zoonoses – specifically how disease is spread from animal to human. Dr. Steele explained that “the brucellosis epidemic among veterinary students and others in the bacteriology building at Michigan State College raised epidemiologic questions about how Brucella organisms were spread. Up to then the disease was believed to be caused by direct exposure or ingestion of milk containing Brucella bacteria. Airborne organisms had not been thought of.” (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000:217:1813-21)

Reaching the end of his veterinary studies, a young Dr. Steele paid his first visit to the AVMA, at a time when the headquarters were located on Michigan Ave. While there, he met former AVMA Executive Secretary John Hardenbergh, who provided strong support for Dr. Steele’s aspirations within public health.

“Why don’t you fly under one flag?”

Following his natural interest in zoonotic pathogens, Dr. Steele earned a Master of Public Health degree from Harvard University – the lone veterinarian in a class of doctors. Graduating in 1942, he discovered that most job opportunities required a Medical Doctorate degree. Discouraged and considering medical school, Dr. Steele consulted with Harvard Dean Drinker who told him: “‘Steele, it’s quite apparent. Why don’t you fly under one flag?’ And that’s the best advice I ever got,” explains Dr. Steele. “That was the beginning.” Abandoning his plans of further advanced education, Dr. Steele resolved to stay true to his veterinary roots.

Commissioned as a sanitarian in the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) on the first of November 1943, Dr. Steele spent the majority of World War II in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. He coordinated milk and food sanitation and evaluated zoonotic threats in areas that had been isolated by the war. There, Dr. Steele researched brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, rabies and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.

As the European campaign came to an end, Dr. Steele anticipated reassignment to the Pacific theater, but Japan surrendered in Aug. 1945. He then expected to become a food and milk sanitarian in Kansas City, but a conversation with then Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Mountin wildly altered his career trajectory – opening the door for veterinary medicine within the public health arena. “Dr. Mountin’s challenge to me was, ‘What are you veterinarians going to do for the public health now that the war is over?’ This was my opportunity to tell him what VPH could do.
“The animal diseases communicable to man were a largely unexplored area. I described some of the known zoonotic diseases. Dr. Mountin asked questions as to prevalence and control. My answers were mainly, ‘We don’t have any data, nor do we know how to control these zoonoses.’ Finally Dr. Mountin said, ‘Steele, it is quite apparent that we have a problem and a lot of ignorance – let us explore it.’” (Vet Herit 1997:20:19-24)

“If you get in trouble, don’t come back”

In Nov. 1945, Dr. Steele presented a lengthy report entitled “Veterinary Public Health” (terms that were used together for the first time) to Dr. Mountin and the Surgeon General – outlining the risk of zoonotic disease and the benefit of employing veterinarians to research and respond to these pathogens. Dr. Mountin was persuaded and sent Dr. Steele to the National Institutes of Health with some final words of encouragement: “If you get in trouble, don’t come back.”
Under the tutelage of Dr. B.T. Simms of the USDA, Dr. Steele spent the next two years traveling to places like Brazil, Maryland, Indiana and Michigan, investigating outbreaks (and the human health implications) of diseases such as hoof-and-mouth disease, brucellosis and salmonellosis. Dr. Steele credits Dr. Simms as being a “helluva man and a dedicated mentor who offered guidance and moral support” during these formative years.

When Dr. Mountin decided to evaluate the progress of the VPH program in March 1947, he was impressed. Capitalizing on the project’s recent success, Dr. Steele urged the Assistant Surgeon General to consider establishing a Veterinary Medical Officer (VMO) category within the USPHS. His report was well received, and Surgeon General Thomas Parran signed an amendment to the USPHS regulations in the summer of 1947, thereby solidifying the VMO position. Alongside an impressive cadre of veterinarians, Dr. Steele was inducted into the first class of Regular Corp VMO in Feb. 1948. Since that time, hundreds of regular and reserve VMOs have served in the United States and worldwide – benefiting human and animal populations alike.

Lifetime of Achievement

During the post-war period, Dr. Steele was a consistent champion of veterinary medicine within the public health domain. His VPH framework served as a model for similar programs at the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organization, and numerous countries. Dr. Steele became Chief Veterinary Officer in 1950, and retired as the first Assistant Surgeon General for Veterinary Affairs in 1971.
On behalf of the CDC, Dr. Steele attended the first ever WHO Expert Committee on Zoonoses in 1950. He then chaired the second meeting in 1965. The meetings brought together the most eminent scholars within the world of zoonotic disease and emphasized the need for international collaboration and common goals. In outlining the mission of these committees, Dr. Steele found wisdom in the insight of his long-time colleague Calvin Schwabe. In Veterinary Medicine and Human Health, Dr. Schwabe wrote: “The final objective of veterinary medicine does not lie in the animal species that the veterinarian commonly treats. It lies very definitely in man, and above all in humanity.”

Legacy of Success

After his retirement from the USPHS, Dr. Steele joined the faculty at the University of Texas, School of Public Health in Houston. In 1983, he was appointed Professor Emeritus there and continues to remain active on campus – providing wisdom, insight, and words of encouragement to countless students and professionals alike.
During his tenure at the University of Texas, Dr. Steele helped to compile and edit the CRC Press Handbook Series in Zoonoses, the first comprehensive collection to address the diseases shared by humans and animals. First published between 1979 and 1984, the tome (now in its second edition) remains a staple of public health curricula throughout the world. And as testament to his dedication to public health, Dr. Steele remains active in the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society, an organization that he founded in the 1980s.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Steele has received numerous awards throughout his storied career. Among them, he earned the USPHS Order of Merit in 1963, and was recognized as an honorary member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (USPHS 1975). He was awarded the International Veterinarian Award by the AVMA in 1984, and is a founder and honorary diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine. In 2006, Dr. Steele received the Surgeon General’s Medallion. Most recently, Dr. Steele’s granddaughter Jamie accepted an award on his behalf from the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The commendation was strongly supported by Dr. John Crawford and recognized Dr. Steele’s “meritorious service to world animal health.”

Despite all of his formal achievements, Dr. Steele is most proud of his accomplishments in the classroom and in the potential of his students. This sense of appreciation is shared by his pupils. Dr. Cates adds that Dr. Steele “has been relentless in his support of my career. Whatever it took — advice, encouragement, compliments, challenges, or attendance at important events — he did it all, pushing me to do even more for VPH. What is amazing is that he did the same for countless others around the world.” Voicing the thoughts of so many others, Dr. Cates lauded Dr. Steele for the high bar he set: “He has set a tremendous, unparalleled example of intelligence, passion, and tenacity in his own VPH career for me and others to emulate. He often points to other people who went before him, but to me, he is the one person I think of when you mention VPH.” Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Howard Erickson, Emeritus Professor of Physiology and the History of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, lauds Dr. Steele for being “a pioneer in veterinary public health, a legend, who is certainly an inspiration to anyone who has read about him or who has met him.”

This month, Dr. Steele celebrates his 100th birthday, as the veterinary world collectively celebrates his numerous contributions to our profession. Even at the age of 100, his mind is fixed on the future. In his words: “I look forward to my 107th birthday when I can finally say, ‘hindsight being 2020, yep – we got it right.’”

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