Father of veterinary cardiology remembered for unceasing labor, curiosity

Dr. David K. Detweiler leaves legacy in veterinary medicine

March 3, 2009 (published)
By Timothy Kirn

Dr. David K. Detweiler, the veterinarian who came to be known as the father of veterinary cardiology, passed away Feb. 15, after having been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and recently suffering a bout of pneumonia. He was 89.

Dr. James W. Buchanan, a veterinary cardiologist who worked with Detweiler at the University of Pennsylvania for 42 years, said the trait that distinguished Detweiler most was that he was extremely hard working. He routinely put in 10-hour to 12-hour days.

He was not known as a particularly funny guy, Buchanan said. But when new trainees joined the veterinary school's Comparative Cardiovascular Studies Unit (CCSU), which Detweiler founded, he would introduce himself and, with a wry smile, tell them they should call him “Daddy,” referring to the appellation that had been attached to him and his career.

“Actually, he was very proud of that,” Buchanan added.

Others consider Detweiler’s establishment of the CCSU alongside Dr. Donald Patterson, which led to the specialty of cardiology, to be the harbinger of modern veterinary medicine.

Dr. David K. Detweiler
Dr. David K. Detweiler

“The development of the CCSU at Penn was the start of the specialty programs in our profession and changed the profession forever,” said Dr. George Eyster, a professor in the cardiology section of the School of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University. “Truly one of the greats.”

Detweiler was a life-long resident of the Philadelphia area. He was born and raised in South Philadelphia, until the family moved to the nearby community of Upper Darby when he was in high school. His father was a butcher and owned a chain of shops. His mother was a milliner and worked selling and advising people on bereavement clothes.

Detweiler received his VMD in 1942 from the University of Pennsylvania. Though it was wartime and he had trained as a pilot, the city of Philadelphia decided to keep him home to help care for 5,000 or so horses that hauled trash and delivered bread and milk. His service was deferred, and he lived at the veterinary school while attending to those duties.

He immediately joined the Penn faculty as an assistant instructor in physiology and pharmacology. Despite a heavy teaching load, he began collecting electrocardiograms from dogs seen in the clinic at the school, and his life’s work was established.

In 1944, Detweiler’s mentor Dr. Roger Amadon resigned and Detweiler served as the head of physiology and pharmacology until 1947, while continuing to teach and conduct research.

In the middle of the 1950s, the university considered closing the veterinary medical program because some officials thought that it had become obsolete and redundant, Buchanan said. Detweiler was among those who convinced the officials to evolve rather than close the school by becoming more of a research institution and he began getting small research grants.

In 1960, Detweiler wrangled a $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish the CCSU. At the time, it was the largest grant ever awarded by the agency to an individual at the Penn veterinary school and it secured the university’s place as a world leader in animal cardiology and veterinary medical research.

During the course of his career, Detweiler published more than 140 scientific articles encompassing topics ranging from a comparison of the arterial hemodynamics in the mongrel dog versus the racing Greyhound to atrial fibrillation in horses. He authored seminal chapters or sections in 25 textbooks. He received honorary degrees from the University of Ohio and the University of Turin, among others.

Following his retirement from academia, Detweiler continued to read electrocardiograms from industry drug studies for many years.

His daughter-in-law, Amanda Detweiler, of Abington, Penn., remembers that he always had an insatiable curiosity and always asked loads of questions, sometimes even when it might have seemed a bit discourteous or unusually frank. But, it was an endearing trait when you knew him, and understood, she said.

She said that when he learned new information, even seemingly trivial things, he was a compulsive note-taker because he was so determined not to lose that information.

“He never lost his interest in things,” she said. “It was all scientific inquiry to him. And even when it was a touchy subject, he was never judgmental.”

Buchanan said he was a good boss and never critical or one to hover over someone's work.

“He operated on the principle that he picked good people, and then he let them go,” he said.

Detweiler was married three times, for roughly 20 years each time. He married his surviving wife, a Danish woman named Birthe Ersbak, in 1990, when he was 70 years old.

He is survived by six children, 18 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

The University of Pennsylvania intends to have a memorial service this spring.

The family asks that anyone wishing to make a memorial donation give to the veterinary school, which can be contacted at:

Office of Development and Alumni Relations
University of Pennsylvania
School of Veterinary Medicine

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