An Interview with... Dr. Michael J. Blackwell


In 1999, retired Rear Adm. Blackwell made history as the first veterinarian to be appointed chief of staff for the Office of the Surgeon General. His professional accomplishments, which span private practice, public health, and education, exemplify the varied and vital roles of veterinarians in society. He now serves as dean of the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine.

What's the most exciting change you've seen in veterinary medicine?

Without a doubt, it's the evolution of medicine and surgery for companion animals. During my early career and certainly during my dad's career, there were more working animals, and medical care was at a very different level than today. Companion animals are now viewed as full-fledged family members, and owners want to do all they reasonably can for them. This shift has pushed the profession to places I'd never have predicted. It's an exciting place to be.

Who was your most memorable patient?

Isaac, a miniature schnauzer who was my best bud when I was a veterinary student. One day while I was driving, Isaac flipped out of the car window going after another dog. Isaac hit the ground, rolled, and came up not bearing weight on a hindlimb. I took him to the vet school, and radiographs showed he'd fractured the neck of his femur. We went right into surgery and placed a lag screw to repair his fracture. I was a veterinary student and had never seen this procedure, and even though I'd never done it before, I figured it out. Isaac healed just fine—he never even had a limp—and that showed me what I was capable of as a surgeon. I thank Isaac for his contribution to my training.

Who inspired you most in your career?

My dad was a general practitioner, and I grew up in his practice. He taught me about life, business, and veterinary medicine. He instilled in me the belief that I could do whatever I set my mind to. More important, he instilled in me the importance of honesty and the idea that this is a profession of service—this profession is not about making money or having fame but is about giving back in important ways. Out of those lessons, I came to appreciate that trust has to be earned, protected, and preserved.

We must completely embrace our role in human health.

What was the best professional advice you ever received?

I had joined the Food and Drug Administration to pursue a public health career after being in general practice in Oklahoma. One day, a lawyer pulled me aside and told me that to be taken seriously in the public health field, I needed to earn a master of public health degree. He told me to "think of it as the union card among public health officials." I followed his advice and earned a master of public health degree with a focus on epidemiology. That training truly opened my eyes to areas I don't think I would have been able to appreciate otherwise. For example, I gained a better insight into the interdependent, multivariate nature of health and disease. I could better appreciate how my role as a veterinarian was critical to the health of the community. And I gained analytical skills that enabled me to more effectively work through problems, especially regarding disease distribution in a population. I'm forever grateful for the advice because many doors opened afterward.

What would you advise new graduates?

I would remind graduates that they have the only comparative medicine degree that is awarded and that they need to use it to its fullest extent. Veterinarians should take advantage of opportunities to improve as many components of the ecological system as they can—considering all animal species and the environmental, social, and cultural factors that affect animals in health and disease. ?

Are you a cat person or a dog person?

I have great admiration and respect for both species, but I am a cat person. I really appreciate and enjoy their independent spirit coupled with their intelligence and resiliency. And maybe I sometimes live life as though I have nine lives.

What book are you reading now?

Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World by Mim Eichler Rivas. It's the story of Dr. William Key, a black man in Tennessee who reared a horse and trained it to understand a tremendous vocabulary. Dr. Key was the original horse whisperer. I just started the book. I am anticipating it will present lessons in patience, understanding, and compassion—things veterinarians know quite a bit about.

What is your favorite film and why?

One of my favorite films is Instinct. It's the story of a world-renowned psychiatrist who travels to Africa to study mountain gorillas and, in the end, learns more about being human by having studied these beautiful creatures.

What do you consider the greatest threat to the profession?

The greatest threat is the general lack of understanding of our profession's role in human health. We are in a medical profession, and if human health is to advance, it's going to be in part because of the veterinary profession. That's always been true, it is true today, and it will be true tomorrow.

What changes in veterinary medicine do you hope will occur in the next 100 years?

I hope veterinary medicine will bridge the gap between the human animal and the rest of the animal kingdom. The evolution of medicine has created this gap because physicians choose not to address, or are incapable of addressing, animal health needs. Veterinarians have the training to address some human health concerns, but as we define our role in society, we stay far away.

But in the future, some veterinarians will possess special training and licensure similar to that of a physician assistant today. These veterinarians will address the primary healthcare needs of all family members and, of course, make appropriate referrals to other professionals as needed. We must completely embrace our comparative medicine training and our role in human health.

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