Dr. Donald Patterson: veterinary genetics pioneer and more

Award recognizes lifelong medical research contributions

September 8, 2011 (published)
By Edie Lau

This portrait of Dr. Donald Patterson, photographed in 1993 by Jaime Hayden, hangs in a conference room dedicated in 2007 to Patterson at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, where he served on the faculty for 42 years. Photo courtesy University of Pennsylvania.
To the outside world, Dr. Donald F. Patterson has been a distinguished researcher, a trailblazer in canine genetics and a bridge between the sometimes distant worlds of human and veterinary medicine.

At home, Patterson was a dad who made pets of interesting, if often feeble, dogs. He was a lover of language who played with and debated words with his family. He approached life with a lively sense of humor and a collection of cowboy jokes.

Growing up as Dr. Patterson’s son was a rich experience, recalls the elder of his two sons, Dr. Russell Patterson. “It worked pretty well for me because I was exposed to a lot of things that most other kids wouldn’t be exposed to,” Patterson said. “I remember walking into Dad’s office, and he had jars and jars of dog hearts in formalin on shelves.”

Perhaps inspired by such exposures, Patterson was interested from an early age in animals and biology, and ended up following his father into veterinary medicine.

In July, he traveled to St. Louis to accept on his father’s behalf the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) Lifetime Excellence in Research Award. The occasion was bittersweet because the elder Patterson, now 80, is debilitated by dementia and could not attend. For the son, the trip was an opportunity to catch up with some of his father’s colleagues and see his father honored for a highly productive career spanning nearly 50 years.

Outside of veterinary medicine and genetics, Donald Patterson may not be a household name, but his work contributed to what today is a common understanding about the heritability of disease in dogs.

“We take for granted now the knowledge that certain breeds have certain problems,” said Dr. James Buchanan, an emeritus professor of cardiology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, where the men worked together. “He was a major force in bringing that out. ... His research did a lot in quantifying the risk that (certain) breeds have for certain abnormalities.”

Dr. Russell Patterson and his father, Dr. Donald Patterson, celebrate Russell's graduation from veterinary school in 1984. Photo courtesy Wade Patterson.
In the Patterson household of suburban Philadelphia in the 1960s, the research manifested in the form of curious and distinctive pets. Russell Patterson particularly remembers a poodle-terrier mix named Bancroft with a congenital heart condition that’s also relatively common in humans called patent ductus arteriosus, or PDA.

Bancroft’s condition, involving improper blood flow, was successfully corrected surgically. Because the dog had not been neutered, Professor Patterson brought the dog home with the intention of breeding him so as to study the genetic basis of the defect.

And breed Bancroft did, for science and otherwise. “He was very, shall we say ... randy,” Russell Patterson recalled. “He’d take off, which is what male dogs did before we neutered them all. He would travel the countryside finding girlfriends. He’d park himself at someone’s house looking forlorn. The people would check his tag and call us. I remember driving all over Delaware County to pick him up.

“He probably inseminated many animals throughout the Philadelphia area with his PDA genes,” Patterson added wryly, “which was probably good for the cardiology service’s caseload.”

Besides Bancroft, Patterson remembers Keeshonds with a different type of heart defect that made them not much fun as playmates. “They couldn’t run more than a dozen yards before lying down to rest,” he said. The Pattersons also kept Newfoundlands with yet another congenital heart problem that were similarly inactive.

In addition to breeding their own lines of dogs, Professor Patterson and colleagues enlisted the help of commercial breeders. “They’d ... say, ‘Hey, do you guys notice some of your puppies have these conditions? How are they related?’ and he would draw pedigrees connecting one dog to another and going back in time,” the younger Patterson said. The professor would try to get the breeders on board with the promise, “I’m going to figure out what this is and hopefully get it out of the line.”

Donald Patterson traced his interest in veterinary medicine to a dog he was given when he was 10, a dog whom he named Pistola — Spanish for pistol — owing to the pet’s vigorous personality. Patterson was born and spent his childhood in Venezuela, where his father worked in the oil industry.

In a memoir he wrote as part of an extended curriculum vitae, Patterson said, “My first memory of an interest in veterinary medicine relates to Pistola’s illness. In the remote region of Venezuela where we lived, there were no veterinarians and no vaccines for infectious diseases in dogs. Pistola died of pneumonia accompanied by involuntary spasms of the legs and grand mal seizures, the frightening signs of canine distemper encephalitis. I was sad for a long time that there was nothing we could do to prevent or cure such a disease.”

The interest in veterinary medicine endured. After moving with his parents to the States during World War II, Patterson enrolled in the pre-veterinary program at Oklahoma State University (then called Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College). While in college, he spent a summer working on a ranch, which he vividly described this way:

“I learned how to ride a horse like a cowboy and rope cows and calves. There were also less glamorous aspects of the job, such as treating cattle wounds with screw-worm fly repellant, digging postholes, mending fences, nursing saddle sores and milking the dairy cows ... I lived in the bunkhouse with the rest of the hands and slept on a large screened-in sleeping porch. While this was pleasantly cool, the prevailing winds were so strong and continuous that if one took his head off the pillow, the wind would blow the pillow off the bed.”

Long after his cowboy days were over, he continued to enjoy the culture. His favorite cowboy joke, as relayed by Russell Patterson, goes like this:

A cowboy is involved in an accident on a ranch and wakes up in the hospital to find a doctor standing over him.

“Tex,” the doctor says, “you’ve been in a terrible accident, and I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

The cowboy replies, “Well, Doc, give me the bad news first.”

The doctor says, “We had to amputate both of your legs below the knee.”

The cowboy says, “Well geez, Doc, what’s the good news?”

The doctor tells him, “The guy in the next bed wants to buy your boots.”

Following graduation, Patterson applied to Oklahoma State’s School of Veterinary Medicine. At his father’s insistence, he applied, as well, to the University of Oklahoma Medical School. Both accepted him.

“Although he never said so directly, I have always felt that my father was disappointed by my decision to go to veterinary rather than medical school,” Patterson wrote. “However, over the years before his death I came to know that both he and my mother were glad of my success and happiness in the profession I had chosen.”

Success and good fortune came early in his career. In his final year of veterinary school, Patterson was accepted as an intern at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston, which he identified as one of the most important events of his life. “At the time ... the clinical training at Angell was superior to that in any of the few existing clinical internships in schools of veterinary medicine in the U.S. and abroad,” he said. “Although U.S. veterinary schools and other institutions today offer excellent internships, Angell remains one of the most sought-after post-DVM clinical training programs in companion animal medicine and surgery.”

After his training at Angell, Patterson took a temporary post at his alma mater teaching small animal medicine and surgery, a job that stoked his interest in an academic career. That was followed by a two-year stint as chief of the laboratory services branch, Aero-Medical Field Laboratory at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. While in New Mexico, Patterson and his wife, Nancy — his college sweetheart, an Oklahoma State history major — had their first son, Russell.

Among the fields in which Patterson was involved with the Air Force was deceleration research, work that led to establishment of safety standards for seat belts and shoulder harnesses in aircraft and motor vehicles. Patterson personally participated as a subject in many deceleration experiments, which he survived without permanent injury, although not without incident.

“On one occasion, due to an error in programming the water brake for a catapult-driven sled experiment, potential G-forces were underestimated and the vertebral ends of two of my ribs were luxated,” he related matter-of-factly. “The ribs were rearticulated by manipulation, and recovery occurred after a few days of traction ...”

Another memorable Air Force project involved America’s budding human space travel program. In 1958, Patterson traveled to West Africa to bring back a group of five chimpanzees that the Air Force had purchased from a dealer in Cameroon. One of the animals, Ham, became the first chimpanzee in space, making a 16-minute suborbital journey on Jan. 31, 1961, that led the way for the launch of America’s first human astronaut, Alan Shepard Jr., four months later.

By that time, Patterson had left the Air Force for the University of Pennsylvania, where he initially taught alongside the late Dr. David Detweiler, a professor of physiology who is considered the father of veterinary cardiology.

Drs. James Buchanan, Don Patterson and Bob Pensinger posed in 1961 with patient "Smoochie" Peeler, who required surgery for a patent ductus arteriosus, one of the most common congenital heart defects in dogs. Photo courtesy Dr. James Buchanan.
Patterson’s studies in cardiology led him to focus on genetic defects of the heart, a research avenue that pointed him to the broader nascent field of medical genetics. Patterson spent much of the period from 1964 to 1966 as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) special fellow at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studying in one of the first organized programs in medical genetics at a medical school. According to Patterson, at that time he was the only veterinarian to be a fellow in such a program.

When Patterson returned full-time to Penn, he established a genetics clinic at the veterinary hospital and started a course in medical genetics — the first such course to be taught in a veterinary school. During the same period, the Pattersons’ second son, Wade, was born.

Patterson spent 42 years on the faculty at Penn, formally retiring in 2000. He then devoted his energy to writing a book and developing an electronic database on genetic diseases of dogs. He envisioned the resource as useful to veterinarians, dog owners, breeders, physicians and research scientists alike. Unfortunately, Patterson became disabled before he could complete the project. In 2007, Patterson moved to an adult family home in Seattle, where his son Russell owns a specialty surgery practice.

That Donald Patterson would continue to write in retirement was not surprising. Russell Patterson described his father as a human word processor. Before the advent of the computer, the elder Patterson would write on yellow tablets, then cut out passages to rearrange them. “They’d be all over the floor,” his son remembered.

The family dictionary was huge and always open. “Invariably there’d be an argument about what something really meant,” he went on. “We’d have to go to the dictionary to settle it. He and my mother really liked words and language.”

As a boy, Russell Patterson grew up listening to his father read Dr. Seuss. “I think that was his favorite children’s author,” he said. Apparently inspired by the famous poet, Professor Patterson tried his own hand at verse.

The effort drew great attention at the 1981 NIH Conference on Inherited Animal Models of Metabolic Diseases, where Patterson decided to liven with poetry what he feared would be an otherwise boring presentation summarizing other speakers’ talks.

The verses were a hit. They were published in a book that resulted from the conference and excerpted in the journal Science and elsewhere.

His prose was successful as well. Dr. Urs Giger, director of the metabolic genetics screening laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that Patterson’s grant proposals “were extremely well-written and easy to read, thereby readily convincing the granting agencies of the merits of the proposals.” Some of his grants from the NIH were renewed repeatedly for decades and, since his retirement, have been transferred to other researchers who continue the work.

Giger lauded Patterson as a visionary leader who was “determined to move forward his ideas and foster young faculty and staff to get the most out of them.”

Stature and acclaim did not go to Patterson’s head. Colleagues described him as thoughtful and kind. “He was just a very supportive person who was very approachable and helpful,” recalled Buchanan, who joined Patterson’s cardiology group at Penn straight out of veterinary school and for whom Patterson was a mentor.

“I was married and had a (young) child at the time and he lived not too far from where I was renting an apartment. He managed to go out of his way and give me a lift to work,” Buchanan said.

Giger remembered a similarly warm welcome when he moved to Pennsylvania in the mid-1980s. “(Patterson) and his wife were very accommodating of us,” Giger said. “When I arrived here with my family, I was a junior person, not even faculty. He helped us find a house and invited us to his house for dinner.”

Russell Patterson said his parents worked as a team in welcoming colleagues, residents, visiting professors and other academics from far and wide to their home. "Dad had colleagues visiting from all over the world and our mom fed most of them her great food and made them laugh," he said.

Patterson was one of seven nominees for the 2011 AVMA Lifetime Excellence in Research Award; his nomination was made by Dr. Joan Hendricks, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.

On the trip to St. Louis to accept the award for his father, Russell Patterson was accompanied by his own son, Clay, who is 17. The experience provided the youth with a view of his grandfather in his prime. “He got an insight into what he was all about,” Patterson said, “... an understanding of what it was like to grow up in that generation, that he was kind of a big deal in that world, and that he worked his tail off to get there, and was fortunate. These are good life lessons.”

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