The James Steele Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man (formerly known as the Southwest Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man) focuses on zoonoses of interest to health professionals. Participants include physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, veterinarians, epidemiologists, microbiologists, virologists, parasitologists, entomologists, sanitarians, public health professionals, wildlife biologists, animal control officers, and others involved in the diagnosis, investigation, and prevention of zoonotic diseases.
The conference serves as a forum for the presentations of research, epidemiological data, and other aspects of emerging and current zoonoses. Papers outlining case studies, outbreak investigations, basic and applied research, and surveillance program reports are presented with the primary theme of the conference being the ecology and epidemiology of zoonotic disease. Another purpose for the conference is to provide a venue for public health professionals to earn CME/CE units.
The Southwest Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man had its first official meeting on June 2, 1951, but its origin was actually a full decade earlier. In late January of 1941, J.V. Irons, Sidney Bohls, (Associate Director and Director of the Texas Department of Health (TDH) Laboratories) and A. B. Rich (Director of Veterinary Public Health at TDH) put together a seminar in the old Norwood building in downtown Austin. The purpose of this seminar was to provide continuing education in the areas of clinical laboratory techniques and microbiology to local technicians.
The group from the Texas Department of Health continued these seminars throughout 1941, expanding to include speakers from the biology department at the University of Texas. By 1943, the meeting had grown both in size and scope and was given the name Conference on Diseases of Animals Transmissible to Man, and Texas A&M University was added to the list of sponsors.
At this time, Dr. James H. Steele was a veterinarian in the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Steele founded the first veterinary public health program at the U.S. Public Health Service, where he served for 26 years. Dr. Irons and Dr. Steele were close associates and good friends. Dr. Irons asked Dr. Steele to deliver many papers at the conference and Dr. Steele worked closely with the organizing committees, suggesting many subject areas to explore.
In 1949, Dr. Irons realized that the conference was getting a wide variety of papers from a growing contingent of researchers, physicians, veterinarians, and laboratorians. He proposed that the name be changed once again to the Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man.
In 1950, the federal government, in an effort to increase knowledge and interest in the area of biological warfare, proposed that 4 regional conferences be established as a venue for new and important papers to be given and discussed. Dr. Irons and Dr. Steele agreed that the existing Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to man would fit neatly into this niche, and the Southwest Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man was officially born.
In 1973, the conference keynote address was formally named the J. V. Irons Keynote Address to honor Dr. Irons’ contributions to the conference. Dr. Jim Steele was the first J. V. Irons keynote speaker.
From 1951 through 2006, the conference met annually, becoming a premiere conference for the presentation of papers related to the emergence and re-emergence of zoonotic diseases and into areas of biological warfare, now referred to as bioterrorism. At the business meeting at the end of the 2006 conference, the membership voted unanimously to change the name of the conference to the James H. Steele Conference on Diseases in Nature Transmissible to Man to honor his contributions to veterinary public health and to the creation and continued success of this conference.
In the mid 1960’s, the then Texas Department of Health Laboratory gave up ownership of the conference to the organization itself. The TDH Laboratory assigned one individual to serve as conference coordinator, responsible for finding suitable venues for the conferences and recruiting local arrangement committees. In 1987, this duty fell to members of the TDH Zoonosis Control Branch, where it has remained.