Flashback: Firsts for female veterinarians

Flashback: Firsts for female veterinarians

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Nov 01, 2004
By dvm360.com staff

In many ways, the battle for respect for female veterinarians mirrored the wars waged by liberating women in every profession across the country, but in many ways it lagged far behind. Just about 40 women graduated from recognized veterinary colleges through 1940, and the Association for Women Veterinarians (AWV) had less than 750 members in 1970. The American Veterinary Medical Association didn't elect its first female president, Dr. Mary Beth Leininger, until 1996.

But despite years of unequal treatment, most female pioneers pledge that the obstacles never were insurmountable.

"Things didn't bother me much. When I look back, I can see quite a few things that were done to me, but I was brought up not to pay much attention to the weather," says Dr. Phyllis Hickney Larsen, class of 1947 at Kansas State University. "On the farm you said, 'Well this is the weather today,' and you get along with it."

At age 81, Dr. Hickney Larsen is president of the American Veterinary Medical History Society, and though she sparingly practiced veterinary medicine in a clinic setting, she has a unique vantage from a myriad of research and education roles, including teaching lab-animal technicians, consulting in nature and environmental fields, teaching English in China to veterinary students, and she served as office manager for the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners beginning in the 1980s. She earned a master's degree in preventive veterinary medicine from the University of California-Davis, where she "retreaded" her training at age 56.

"I didn't work all the time in veterinary medicine, but I essentially continued to work in the veterinary medical field," she says.

Through it all, she was able to track changes in perceptions toward women—from clients, from colleagues and from the communities in which she lived.

"In different people, perceptions changed at different times. There still are people who find ways to put down women, and I very much hope that women won't do that to the men when we are in the majority," she says. "The more we succeed in the milieu of the management part of the corporate world, the greater the danger that we will stop thinking like the ones that need nurturing, which are the patients."

Dr. Hickney Larsen was active in the AWV for much of her career, and she served as chair of the group's history committee beginning in the 1990s. In 1997, she published "Our History of Women in Veterinary Medicine: Gumption, Grace, Grit and Good Humor" on behalf of AWV. The following are excerpts from her book, a historical compilation from 1947 through 1997.

b Dr. Mary Knight Dunlap, class of 1933 from Michigan State University, founded AWV in 1947; she also launched the organization's newsletter, the Bulletin, and continued to author it through August 1948. Dr. Dunlap ran a house-call practice, cared for several species at a children's zoo, worked for the toxicology department at the University of California College of Medicine in San Francisco, and she wrote, edited and contributed to several publications and books. She was trying her hand in fiction when she died in 1992 at the age of 82.

b Dr. Patricia O'Connor, Cornell's class of 1939, was the first zoo veterinarian in the United States. She worked at the Staten Island Zoo, and she was AWV's second president, serving from 1948 to '49 and again from 1954 to '56. She also served the AWV as its secretary and editor of the Bulletin.

b Captain Thais de Tienne, DVM, class of 1938, Washington State University, was the first woman to be commissioned in the Army Veterinary Corps in 1945. After the war, she was a small animal practitioner in Southern California until she died in 1964; she is entombed at Cypress Lawn Mausoleum in San Diego.