by Carey Checca
A cool breeze sweeps over western Illinois grain fields and crosses the town square in Erie, Illinois. It blows through the open door of the Erie Veterinary Clinic. From behind the counter, Dr. Robert A. Latham, a tall gentleman wearing green slacks and matching green shirtsleeves, hands the owner of a Yorkie a pack of heartworm medication.
"Now dont forget to give her the heartworm medication on the first of the month," Dr. Latham admonishes as the client heads out the door, Yorkie tucked under his arm like a small squirming football.
During a quiet moment on a cool afternoon, Dr. Latham sits on the brown vinyl bench in the waiting room kitty-corner from his partner, Dr. John R. Baker, who is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. These two members of the first veterinary class, the Class of 52, have practiced together in this clinic for 44 years. As they recall their years on campus and their careers, the history of the College of Veterinary Medicine and the changes in the veterinary profession come alive.
"Do you remember the old sorority house?" Dr. Baker asks Dr. Latham.
"Just one classroom," replies Dr. Latham.
"On the second story."
"And when the hour was up, a new teacher came in."
Most of the instruction for the first class happened in that room. Microscopes were stored there. Histology, bacteriology, physiology, and parasitology were taught there.
"We had an adequate facility, but certainly not what they have now," Dr. Baker says. "But if you have a good faculty and a small group, well, you can learn anywhere."
"They wanted to teach, and we wanted to learn," Dr. Latham says. "It was just great!"
Anatomy classes and clinics were held at the old veterinary pathology lab, which stood behind the Architecture Building near Sixth and Peabody. Large animal patients were hospitalized at the old beef barn.
When the veterinary students were ready to work in the clinics, they were paired up and worked two-week rotations in large animal, small animal, ambulatory, and diagnostic lab services.
"I remember when Erv Small and I had jobs working in the clinics on weekends before he got into vet school," says Dr. Baker. "Hes still the same old Erv."
"He was one of those guys," Dr. Latham says, "who you were always glad to see walk in the door. He added something. He still does."
Just like today, the first class got a complete education in both small and large animal medicine. Most graduates went into mixed practices after their 1952 graduation. Small animal practices were rare in most of downstate Illinois. In fact, a shortage of large animal veterinarians in Illinois is in part what prompted the Illinois General Assembly to fund the veterinary college in 1948.
When Drs. Baker and Latham opened their practice, they answered a lot of ambulatory calls for large animals.
"The barns are down. The fences are gone," Dr. Latham says. "You name it, its not coming back."
"I think I work with only two guys who have dairy cows now," Dr. Baker says. "I bet when I started it was about 70."
When the doctors worked mostly with large animals, they left the clinic in the morning, their pickups loaded up with medicines and supplies. If they were lucky, they were back at the clinic by dinnertime. But the years take their toll. Now they dont work such long and strenuous hours.
"As a recent graduate, I never would have anticipated that large animal practice would evolve into primarily a management/consultant role," Dr. Latham says.
"And now weve got the emphasis on prevention. Youre not going out to put out fires, youre trying to keep them from getting started," Dr. Baker says.
Today most of their patients are small animals in for routine examinations, surgeries, and vaccinations. Clients are demanding precise diagnoses and specialized treatments so cases are more often sent to specialists. The human-animal bond is talked about.
Veterinary medicine is still a first love for these two veterinarians. In their seventies, they still work at their clinic six days a week.
Dr. Latham spreads his arms in a gesture meant to embrace not only this room and the rest of his clinic but the entire veterinary profession: "I love this. Ill do it as long as I can."
Drs. Robert Latham and John Baker reminisced recently about their veterinary school days:
"If you have a good faculty and a small group, well, you can learn anywhere"even the second floor of an old sorority house.