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50 Plus Club A Legacy in Veterinary Medicine

Richard Detweiler, VMD '44Sweeping out the kennels at his father’s animal clinic, a young Richard H. Detwiler, V.M.D. ’44 knew he’d one day grow up to be a veterinarian just like his father. Spending his childhood days watching his father work at the VCA Detwiler Animal Clinic in Reading, he learned early how to perform vaccinations and routine check-ups on cattle, fowl, equine and swine. At age 19, he delivered his first set of twin goats, an experience he remembers as "rewarding and exciting."

After graduation from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, Detwiler joined the family practice. And with the exception of a brief hiatus serving with the Veterinary Corps. in World War II, he has practiced at that location, now twice its original size, ever since. But the size of the office space isn’t the only thing that has changed during the course of his 50-plus years in the field, he says.

Although he has treated many different kinds of animals, some as exotic as boa constrictors and elephants, today’s clientele is predominantly domesticated animals. However, Detwiler remembers when it was mostly farm animals. In fact, practicing veterinary medicine was once considered quite dangerous.

Before chloroform, tranquilizers and anesthesia, he subdued large animals with brute force. "My size and physique were very beneficial when working on large animals," he says. "My long arms were especially helpful with obstetric work." However, his size didn’t prevent him from suffering a few job-related injuries including concussions, a broken leg and cracked ribs, from being kicked by horses and thrusted by cattle. "When I first began my practice," he says, "the insurance was rated in the same category as stunt drivers and scuba divers." Fortunately, the development of modern technology like tranquilizers, sedatives, and other drugs has decreased these physical dangers and opened the door to veterinarians of small stature, including women, who were at one time precluded from entering the profession because of the dangers, he says.

Other rapid changes in veterinary medicine include education, certification procedures, and most significantly, medication. Opening a large bound book filled with pages and pages of ‘recipes,’ Detwiler says, "I used to mix my own drugs, grinding down organic materials and compounding the drugs in my office. But now we order these drugs or write a prescription." The advent of antibiotics and improvements in anesthetics make this process a bit easier and the medicinal mixtures more precise, he says.

Many elements of the profession have been enhanced by these changes, Detwiler says. However, they have also left many doctors "running scared." The mainstreaming of antibiotics and other drugs has caused many animals, and humans, to develop a tolerance to them. Ultimately, such medications become less effective, making the job of a veterinarian more difficult. Pets are also becoming more of a family entity, he says, and owners are requesting more heroic measures to sustain their animal companions’ lives.

With these and many other changes, Detwiler has become actively involved in preserving the history of veterinary medicine. In 1990 he helped to establish the Pennsylvania Veterinary Historical Society. Since then, the organization has expanded to include a larger geographic region and is now called the Eastern Veterinary Historical Society (EVHS). Over the years, EVHS has acquired more than 1,000 veterinary artifacts that are displayed regionally at various events. It also boasts an extensive library, which houses volumes of books on veterinary medicine including ones dated as early as 1500.

Even his own office at VCA Detwiler Animal Hospital displays an array of antique veterinary instruments passed down through the generations, some from as far back as 1889 when his grandfather graduated from Ontario Veterinary College, the oldest veterinary college in North America.

Thinking about his father’s long, 70-year career in veterinary medicine, Detwiler says he hopes to again follow in his footsteps. "I’ve survived more than 50 years myself and plan to continue practicing as long as I am physically able." Although none of Detwiler’s three daughters chose to pursue veterinary medicine, Detwiler’s nephew, Stephen R. Levan, D.V.M. ’73, has carried on the family trade as a large animal relief veterinarian. And so the legacy continues.

-- Kelly K. Ferry

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