‘Father of veterinary public health’ James Steele dies at 100

Dr James H. Steele
Dr James H. Steele

Renowned US veterinarian Dr James H. Steele died peacefully at the age of 100 in Houston last month.

Steele, who was born in Chicago in 1913, died on the morning of November 10 at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

He received his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Michigan State University in 1941 and a Master’s of Public Health from Harvard University in 1942.

Referred to often as the “father of veterinary public health,” James H. Steele, DVM, MPH, was professor emeritus at the University of Texas School of Public Health.

As the “father of veterinary public health,” Steele dedicated his life to investigating diseases transmitted from animals to humans — zoonoses. The results of his efforts, including the development of a rabies vaccine and the founding of the veterinary division of the Centers for Disease Control in 1947, have helped save countless lives. His work introduced the principals of veterinary public health to the world.

“Dr. Steele was a remarkable man and a great friend to the School of Public Health,” said Roberta B. Ness, M.D., M.P.H., dean of the School of Public Health. “His body of work and dedication to preventing the transmission of disease from animals to humans profoundly influenced the practice of public health.”


After leaving the CDC, Steele began teaching at the School of Public Health, as a professor of environmental health. During his tenure there from 1971 to 1983, Steele continued to advance the understanding of zoonoses and compiled and edited the world’s first comprehensive series of books on diseases shared by animals and man, the CRC Press Handbook Series in Zoonoses.

Serving as a United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corp officer, Steele became the first assistant surgeon general for veterinary affairs and was later appointed as deputy assistant secretary at the rank of admiral.

Steele lectured and mentored students for many years after his retirement in 1983. In recognition of his lifetime of work, The James H. Steele Lecture Series was established in his honor in 1992. In 2006 Steele became one of only a few veterinarians to receive the Surgeon General’s Medallion, presented by then-U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona.

In 2012, Steele received the OIE (World Animal Health Organization) Medal of Merit. Most recently in September, Steele received the World Veterinary Association John Gamgee award. Only five other veterinarians have received this honor since the award’s inception in 1963. From 1945 on, he received many awards for his work.

Steele’s dedication inspired generations of students, and earned the lasting respect of his colleagues. Steele celebrated his 100th birthday in April at his lecture series, surrounded by friends and colleagues — some traveling from as far away as Africa and Europe.

Steele began his career at the Michigan State Department of Agriculture in 1938 where he worked in testing of vaccines and Brucellosis. He then moved on to become Sanitarian for the US Public Health Service in the Chicago Regional Office. From there, he became a scientist with the Planned Veterinary Public Health Program in Washington, D.C. where he was the consultant to the Surgeon General and establishment of Veterinary Programs in WHO and FAO in the UN. For his work in Washington, he became the Chief of the Veterinary Public Health Division with the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, Georgia (which later became the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in 1947.

This was the first establishment for any type of veterinary public health in any national government. Shortly after this appointment, Steele became the Chief Veterinary Officer and advisor to the Surgeon General on all affairs involving veterinary medicine and veterinary public health.

Steele became Professor Emeritus in 1983 with the University of Texas and remained in that position until his passing.

Dr James H. Steele
Dr James H. Steele

He was also a special consultant with United Nations Techinical Development Fund, World Bank, Inter-American Bank, and Agency for International Development from 1967 to 1983. He was a consultant as well to President’s Commission on Consumer Affairs from 1969 to 1989, as well as being a consultant to White House Office of Science and Health Planning for 2000 and after.

He boldly introduced the principles of veterinary public health to the US and more than 60 countries around the globe. His outstanding medical achievements have saved countless human and animal lives and has helped the world to realize higher standards of living through a better understanding of the epidemiology of diseases shared by animals and man-the zoonoses.

Outside of his professional life,  Steele had a great interest in many things. He would often discuss politics or current events with friends and family and loved to enjoy the symphony, ballet, opera, and the arts. But he was most fond of college athletics and sports such as football, basketball, baseball, and tennis.

His social philosophy to thousands of students and colleagues from all over the world was: “I believe firmly throughout my career that I should share my knowledge and expertise with my fellow man. Those of us who are fortunate to be endowed with intellectual advantages have an even greater responsibility to share. Carry on!”

Steele is survived by his wife, Brigitte Maria Steele; sons, Michael J. Steele Field, James H. Steele, Jr., and David A.J. Steele; three granddaughters and one grandson. He was predeceased by his first wife, Aina Oberg Steele.

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