Dr. James Hahn Steele (born 1913)
" [Dr. James Hahn Steele (born 1913)] enjoyed a good relationship with [Dr. Alexander Duncan Langmuir (born 1910)], who founded CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) training program in 1951. In 1953, Dr Langmuir asked Dr Steele to recruit veterinarians to work in all epidemiologic areas (animal and nonanimal diseases) of the EIS program. This was the beginning of a new sphere of opportunity for veterinarians in public health. Today, veterinarians are integrated into all areas of PHS activity."
James H. Steele, a veterinarian whose pioneering efforts to prevent the spread of disease from animals to people led him to be called “the father of veterinary public health,” died on Nov. 10 in Houston. He was 100.
His death was announced by several organizations with which he had long affiliations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Texas School of Public Health.
The potential for a disease to pass from animals to people had been understood for millenniums, but it was not until the late 18th century, when Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for smallpox, that someone found a way to prevent it. The idea that government could take a systematic approach to fighting disease in animals to protect people did not take hold until the middle of the 20th century, when Dr. Steele led the way.
He helped establish mass vaccination and prevention programs in the United States for diseases like rabies and bovine brucellosis. After setting up federal programs, he helped start them at the state level. He visited dozens of countries to start veterinary public health programs and to help trace specific diseases, like Rift Valley fever in Nigeria, where he traveled in the 1970s. He constantly looked beyond his immediate field: in 1964, he published a paper titled “The Socioeconomic Responsibilities of Veterinary Medicine.”
He participated via Skype this summer at the annual conference of the American Veterinary Medical Association in Chicago during a lecture series, “The James Steele Challenge: A Better World Through One Health.” It focused on his lifelong passion: convincing people that economic prosperity was rooted in animal, human and environmental health. Scores of students cite him as their mentor.
“What would things be like if there had never been a Jim Steele?” said Dr. Craig N. Carter, a veterinarian who studied under Dr. Steele and later wrote a biography of him, recalling the questions he and several colleagues asked one another after a recent memorial service for Dr. Steele. “Would we be 30 or 40 years behind where we are now?”
In 1942, a year after Dr. Steele received his doctor of veterinary medicine degree from Michigan State University, he became one of the first veterinarians to receive a master’s degree in public health from Harvard. In 1945 he started the veterinary public health program at the United States Public Health Service in Washington. In 1947, he and the unit moved to Atlanta, to what is now called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two years after that he went to work for the office of the surgeon general as chief veterinary officer. He became the nation’s first assistant surgeon general for veterinary affairs in 1968 and deputy assistant secretary for health and human services in 1970. The formal name for the types of diseases Dr. Steele dealt in, which pass from animals to humans, is zoonoses. While he had strong science and field experience — his interest in pursuing a veterinary degree increased after he helped investigate a brucellosis outbreak in a lab at Michigan State in the 1930s — his special talent was in finding practical ways to address disease on a large scale.
“He had to take all that science and translate it into a disease control program,” said Dr. Peter Cowen, who teaches epidemiology and public health in the college of veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University. “Jim took the science and protected public health.”
James Harlan Steele was born on April 3, 1913, in Chicago to James Hahn Steele and the former Lydia Norquist. He grew up, all the way to 6-foot-7, in Chicago, and stayed there into his 20s, selling insurance to help his family before he entered Michigan State.
In 1971, he became a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.
He retired in 1983. His survivors include his wife, Brigitte; his sons, Michael, James and David; and four grandchildren. His first wife, the former Aina Oberg, died in 1969.
Many veterinarians and public health officials credit Dr. Steele for a recent increase in attention to what is called “one health” or “one medicine.” They note that epidemiologists are now far more aware of humans’ vulnerability to animal diseases, in part because among the emerging diseases of the last two decades, including West Nile virus, mad cow disease and monkeypox, 70 percent are zoonoses, crossing from animals to people.
“This was something that just totally was not considered before Jim Steele,” Dr. Carter said. “His work has led to this progression toward integrated medicine.”
Dr. Steele wrote several books and received scores of awards, including the Medal of Merit from the World Animal Health Organization and the Surgeon General’s Medallion.
He was quick to credit his mentors and students, and he always put his accomplishments in context.
“The impact of veterinary research through the years has been startling,” he wrote in the 1960s. “It has opened vast areas of continents to animal husbandry, given a base to many industries and improved human nutrition beyond expectation. Probably in no other creative area has an investment returned so great a dividend for mankind.”
James Steele, DVM, MPH, passed away on November 10, 2013, in Houston; he was 100 years old. Jim Steele (Figure) was an extraordinary man. All of the dimensions of his life were on a grand scale. He was larger than life in so many ways; his vision, his leadership, his accomplishments in public health, his worldwide friendships, his mentorship of scores of young acolytes who came within his orbit, his extraordinary memory, his bear hugs, and his longevity were all manifestations of his boundless enthusiasm for life.
Dr Steele’s professional career spanned more than 70 years. It began in 1938 when he worked in a brucellosis testing laboratory for the Michigan State Department of Agriculture while studying veterinary medicine at Michigan State University. Brucellosis developed in many of his veterinary colleagues, and he wanted to learn how the causative pathogen and other pathogens were transmitted from animals to humans. This was the beginning of his lifelong vocation of studying and controlling zoonotic diseases.
In 1941, Dr Steele received a doctorate of veterinary medicine from Michigan State University, and in 1942, he earned a master of public health degree from Harvard University. In 1943, he was commissioned as a sanitarian in the Public Health Service (PHS). He spent most of World War II in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where he coordinated milk and food sanitation programs, evaluated zoonotic threats to the islands, and conducted research on brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, rabies, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
After the war, Dr Steele’s encounter with Assistant Surgeon General Joseph Mountin [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Walter_Mountin ], the legendary founder of the Communicable Disease Center (now named Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; CDC), changed his career. Dr Steele was fond of telling how Dr Mountin challenged him by asking, “What are you veterinarians going to do now that the war is over?” In response, Dr Steele described some of the known zoonotic diseases, and Dr Mountin asked questions about their prevalence and control. Dr Steele’s main response was “We don’t have any data, nor do we know how to control these zoonoses.” In the end, Dr Mountin said, “Steele, it is quite apparent that we have a problem and a lot of ignorance—let us exploit it!” Thus, in 1945, Dr Steele produced a detailed report titled Veterinary Public Health, which outlined the risks posed by zoonotic diseases and the benefits of employing veterinarians for research and response efforts. Dr Mountin and Surgeon General Thomas Parran were impressed by the scope of the report, and in 1947, Dr Steele convinced the Surgeon General to establish a Veterinary Medical Officer category in the PHS. He entered this service category and became the PHS chief veterinary officer. When he retired from the PHS Commissioned Corps in 1971, Dr Steele was an Assistant Surgeon General, the first veterinarian to achieve this rank.
Dr Steele came to CDC in 1947, just after its beginning. There was no road map for the work he did—he was a pioneer, creating CDC’s veterinary public health program. Much of his work was focused on rabies eradication. He and his team improved the existing vaccine, and he then worked toward eliminating the disease in dogs and cats in the United States and other countries. He also worked on other diseases that threatened humans and animals, including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, Q fever, psittacosis, salmonellosis and other food-borne diseases, and avian influenza.
Dr Steele also pioneered the integration of veterinary public health into the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). In 1950, he attended the first WHO Expert Committee meeting, and in 1965, he chaired the second meeting. These meetings brought together the most eminent experts in the world of zoonotic diseases and emphasized the need for international collaboration and common goals. Jim Steele worked closely with PAHO and WHO throughout his career.
Dr Steele enjoyed a good relationship with [Dr. Alexander Duncan Langmuir (born 1910)] , who founded CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) training program in 1951. In 1953, Dr Langmuir asked Dr Steele to recruit veterinarians to work in all epidemiologic areas (animal and nonanimal diseases) of the EIS program. This was the beginning of a new sphere of opportunity for veterinarians in public health. Today, veterinarians are integrated into all areas of PHS activity.
When he retired from PHS in 1971, Dr Steele became a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health. He was an active teacher, writer, and mentor. He compiled the CRC Handbook Series in Zoonoses, the first comprehensive collection addressing diseases shared by humans and animals. The book remains a staple of public health curricula throughout the world.
Dr Steele received numerous awards during his career. Among them are the American Public Health Association's Bronfman Prize, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s International Veterinary Congress Prize, the Surgeon General’s Medallion, the PAHO Abraham Horwitz Award for Excellence in Leadership in Inter-American Health, the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) Medal of Merit, and many more. In addition, the University of Texas School of Public Health holds an annual James Steele Lecture, and a James H. Steele Veterinary Public Health Award is given annually at CDC’s EIS Conference.
The message of the One Health Initiative is that human health and animal health are inextricably linked: we cannot have good public health unless we have good animal health, and we cannot have good animal health unless we have good public health. Jim Steele was a father of the One Health Initiative. He didn’t merely profess this concept—he practiced it for 7 decades, and he taught it to younger generations of veterinarians. Jim Steele had an extraordinary capacity for mentoring younger health professionals and sustaining lifelong relationships.
Lewis Thomas, the physician–philosopher who wrote about so many aspects of life, said that the highest state of life is to be useful—to be engaged in purposeful activity with your fellow men. By this measure, Jim Steele was a rich man—not in material wealth, which is ephemeral—but in his relationships with other human beings, which are enduring. Jim Steele has left a legacy in which millions of persons have been granted healthier lives. The world is a better place because Jim Steele lived and served humanity.