Dr. Murray Fowler's legacy lives in those he inspired

Veterinarian who revolutionized zoo animal medicine dies at age 85

May 29, 2014 (published)
By Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM

Photo courtesy of the University of California
A diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine, the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and the American Board of Veterinary Toxicology, Dr. Murray Fowler’s career encompassed private practice, academia and 24 years as a veterinarian for the Sacramento Zoo, which named its veterinary hospital in his honor.
“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

— John Steinbeck

The best teachers sculpt futures, sometimes futures their students don't expect.

One of my favorite photographs from practice shows my daughter, then age 2, standing eye-to-eye with a llama cria, just a week old. The cria’s dam and I stand in the background. It was a recheck appointment. The baby had been stuck in the birth canal, head twisted back. As the default camelid doctor for the practice, I delivered her. I never set out to be a llama and alpaca doc, and probably would never have developed that area of clinical interest had it not been for one professor.

This month, the veterinary profession mourns the loss of a true artist. Dr. Murray Fowler, who died peacefully on May 18 at the age of 85, brought zoo and wildlife medicine from a realm of patchwork guessing into a modern, science-based discipline. Along the way, he inspired generations of colleagues.

“Every zoo vet currently working owes everything” to Dr. Fowler, said Dr. Ned Gentz, a zoo veterinarian and consultant in small and exotic animals and ruminants for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), parent of the VIN News Service.

“In a nutshell, Murray is without a doubt, undeniably the father of modern zoological medicine,” Dr. Gentz said.

Dr. Fowler, founder and charter diplomate of the American College of Zoological Medicine, began his career in 1955 in a California private practice and built a reputation as an equine doctor who also treated exotic animals. Three years later, he joined the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.

During some 30 years of teaching, he developed the first courses on captive and free-ranging wild animals, established the first residency program in zoological medicine and wrote award-winning books. Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine, first published in 1978, is the seminal textbook on the subject. The eighth edition will be published next month.

Textbooks seem like a dry remembrance, until you envision them in use — veterinarians poring over the pages in hopes of diagnosing a patient or, in more than one case for me, frantically looking up details on an unfamiliar species in the truck as the technician drives to the deer farm or wildlife sanctuary.

If teaching is an art, textbooks are masterpieces, the lasting legacy of the artist.

“Looking at my bookshelf, one of my prized possessions (is) a pre-print, review copy of the first edition of Murray’s llama book that he inscribed for me,” said Dr. Gentz. The inscription reads:

"Dear Ned, It has been a real pleasure to know of your work and count you as a friend. May you get as much satisfaction out of your work as I do mine. Regards, Murray Fowler."

By the time I entered UC Davis veterinary school in 1992, Dr. Fowler technically was retired. Yet he continued to teach a number of classes and give lectures in basic courses. His few lectures to our freshman class were bright spots in what was, for me, an overwhelming and nearly disillusioning year. I took a camelid medicine class as a sophomore simply because he was teaching it, little knowing how it would impact my career.

I was supposed to be a horse and cow doc. Yet, when I joined the practice where I would work for 10 years, one of the first questions I was asked was, “Will you see llamas and alpacas?”

I said, “Well, I took a class in vet school…”

From that point on, I became known for my willingness to at least examine just about anything. Dr. Fowler’s books rode with me to see llamas, alpacas, deer, even a zebra and once, a bear.

Dr. Fowler spoke with humor, candor and enthusiasm about his field. For veterinary students bombarded with more facts and formulae to memorize than we’d ever dreamed existed, it was a welcome reprieve to hear someone for whom veterinary medicine was far more than the sterility of reference ranges. Dr. Fowler made me feel that this profession really was the grand adventure I believed in when I applied to school. He spoke of discoveries made in the field through trial-and-error. He gave students a rare gift, one that is perhaps growing ever more scarce — the gift of understanding that failure isn’t a disaster, but another means of learning.

By all accounts, he was unfailingly generous in sharing his knowledge with those eager to learn. Dr. Ken Harkewicz, a reptile and amphibian veterinarian, remembers an early correspondence with Dr. Fowler.

“Toward the end of high school, beginning of college, I really started getting interested in keeping tortoises and amphibians at a higher level than I had in grade school, in learning more about their nutrition," he said. "I read that Murray Fowler was making nutritional formulas for zoo animals, so I wrote to him. He wrote back. To take the time for a kid from nowhere, not even a vet student …”

According to Dr. Harkewicz, whenever he and Dr. Fowler ran into each other at professional conferences, even decades later, Dr. Fowler remembered that early correspondence.

“Murray was a brilliant man, a hardworking man and incredibly humble. He always had time for newbies and students. He loved students,” said Dr. Gentz.

As much as Dr. Fowler made a difference in the lives of his students and colleagues, his most significant impact will outlast those who knew him and touches most deeply those without voices to remember him. Dr. Fowler was instrumental in guiding zoos away from the menagerie-style concrete and chain-link enclosures and toward more natural settings, according to Dr. Harkewicz: “He made the zoos what they are today, and that’s his biggest legacy."

As the father of zoological medicine, Dr. Fowler was one-of-a-kind, Dr. Gentz said. "He's irreplaceable. There'll never be another. He's a giant," he said, repeating, "He's a giant."

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