Joan C. Hendricks
is the Gilbert S. Kahn dean of veterinary medicine at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine
Next time you take your pet to the vet - or eat eggs for breakfast - you should take a moment to thank Benjamin Rush.
Rush is remembered as the prominent Philadelphia physician who signed the Declaration of the Independence. Less well-known is how he inspired the founding of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine.
Two hundred and six years ago, on Nov. 2, 1807, before a medical school class at Penn, Rush delivered a visionary speech titled "On the Duty and Advantages of Studying the Diseases of Domestic Animals, and the Remedies Proper to Remove Them." Rush had studied abroad and lamented the lack of a proper veterinary institution in his home country. He eloquently made the case for why an aspiring American physician should "embrace in his studies and labors the means of lessening the miseries of domestic animals."
Rush's speech was pivotal in the creation of Penn Vet, to this day the only veterinary school born from a medical school. Rush also presaged essential principles of modern veterinary science, including the connection between human and animal diseases.
Many people do not realize that, beyond aiding our pets, veterinarians play a critical role in advancing and protecting human health on a global scale. Since 75 percent of new infectious diseases found in humans are spread originally from animals, vets are the first responders to health concerns worldwide. Both the West Nile virus and avian flu were first identified by veterinarians.
Rush was ahead of his time when he argued, "By extending our knowledge of the causes and cure of the diseases of domestic animals, we may add greatly to the certainty and usefulness of the profession of medicine as far as it relates to the human species."
Today, veterinarians and researchers at Penn Vet are at the forefront of what we call "translational medicine" between animals and humans. For example, Dr. Karin Sorenmo and her colleagues at Penn's Abramson Cancer Center care for shelter dogs with mammary tumors to advance treatment of human breast cancers. In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic, Penn Vet's Dr. Charles Vite is predicting and controlling seizures in dogs and humans. In 2011, Dr. Ralph Brinster became the first veterinarian to win the National Medal of Science - for developing a reliable in-vitro culture system for early mouse embryos that is now used in human in-vitro fertilization, mammalian cloning, and embryonic stem-cell therapy.
Rush also noted the important role of veterinarians in food safety. These days, vets maintain farm biosecurity protocols and food testing to protect the health of animals and people.
Eat eggs this morning? Penn Vet's faculty helped develop a food-safety system whereby poultry eggs can be tested for salmonella 10 times more swiftly, saving millions of dollars. The Food and Drug Administration has adopted this test for its egg-safety program.
Want to feel a little better about your side of bacon? Penn Vet has led the way in developing more humane sow housing, a practice that companies like Smithfield, Hormel, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Denny's now require.
As the world's population grows, hunger is a major public health threat. Food availability, safety, and production are key areas of research and service for veterinarians, and our knowledge is helping feed developing countries.
Rush also pointed to the undeniable joy of animal companionship, and our moral obligation to care for our animal friends. More than 60 percent of American households own at least one pet. And animals care for us, too. Dogs save people's lives, work with autistic children, and sniff out cancer.
You may have seen Penn Vet's new ads on buses and billboards, with taglines such as "We Speak Penny" or "We Speak Duke" above a photograph of a cat or dog. The campaign may seem merely clever or cute, but it is rooted in Benjamin Rush's enduring principles about the human-animal connection and the importance of veterinary medicine to the health of all beings.
As we mark the 206th anniversary of Rush's speech, and as we look toward Penn Vet's 130th anniversary next year, it's worth remembering a physician who made an indelible impact in Philadelphia, around the world - and at the breakfast table.