Dr. Kermit Peterson was instrumental in growing the Department of Veterinary Medicine into a College of Veterinary Medicine.
In 1959, when Dr. Kermit Peterson accepted a faculty position in veterinary medicine at OSU, he moved his family from Salem to a small acreage on the northern edge of Corvallis. At that time, the Department of Veterinary Medicine was part of the School of Agriculture.
In addition to teaching and research, Dr. Peterson was also the veterinarian for the OSU dairy herd and his daughter, Patsy Smith, liked to tag along on his visits to the barn on Harrison Boulevard. “I went on calls with him on Saturdays and, in the summer, I would often go with him in the middle of the night,” she says. “I grew up in that big, old barn; it was fabulous. It had a huge haymow with gorgeous hardwood floors. It was really fun to go up there and play.”
OSU dairy barn (circa 1939) was located off Harrison Blvd. near the site of the current dairy barn. It burned in 1967.
That dairy barn, built in 1937 as a depression-era WPA project, caught fire in 1967 and Smith watched it burn from her kitchen window. “Our view looked out over the barn. It was dark, and when we looked out the kitchen window and saw the flames, my dad realized what it was, and jumped in his truck to drive down there. I don’t remember if they got all the animals out.”
As an undergrad at OSU, Smith worked in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. At that time, it was housed in the small cement building south of Dryden, now the Veterinary Research Laboratory. “It used to have a big incinerator out back where they burned all the carcasses,” she says. “Farmers would bring them for testing; mostly it was lots of chickens. It was a very stinky place to work.” She also remembers that Dr. Donald Helfer, a professor of veterinary medicine who was the poultry science expert, treated wild birds in the Dryden barn. “He was the only person around here who treated wild birds, so people brought them in to him. He kept owls in the haymow; that’s where he treated them. He had a Great Horned Owl he got as a chick and kept as a pet; his name was Socrates. He loved women with long hair, and would sit on your shoulder and comb your hair with his beak.”
After graduating from OSU with a degree in virology, Smith worked as a tech in the laboratory of professor Donald Mattson. This was in the late 1970s and Smith remembers the ‘can-do’ spirit of the faculty. “Dr. Mattson would go to the slaughter house and get calf organs and blood. He’d come back in his little car with buckets of blood, and we’d have to spin it all down. Now you just order all that stuff.” They also reused all their plastic labware. “He built a box with UV lights in it, and we washed all our plastic plates and everything, then sterilized them in the box and reused them. You would never do that now, but it worked fine.” Dr. Mattson also built all the tissue culture hoods out of plywood in his garage. “He was a great guy; quite the handyman.”
Her dad, Dr. Peterson, was also a practical problem solver. The Department of Veterinary Medicine was on the second and third floors of Dryden, and he was concerned about the wooden stairwell. “He took one look at it and said, ‘If there was a fire, we’d never get out of here’,” says Smith. “We had these big heavy ropes for tying horses; he tied one to the steam radiator in the lab, and tied knots in it. It was right by the window so the idea was, in the case of fire, you could shinny down it. That rope was still there when I left in 1981.”
Dr. Peterson was a professor from 1959-1977. In 1975, the Oregon Legislature established the School of Veterinary Medicine with Dr. E.E. Wedman as the first Dean. Dr. Peterson was the Assistant Dean. “He was very involved in the inception of the vet school,” says Smith. “He really wanted a veterinary school here and worked hard to support it. He was involved in hiring Dr. Wedman. Later he was very active in establishing the WICHE program.”
Dr. Peterson’s first love was teaching, and in addition to his other duties, he always taught classes. “I remember him home at night, preparing for the next day’s lecture,” says Smith. “He was also a 4-H leader and was great with kids. He took all the kids to horse shows and on horse camping trips. Friends from grade school tell me how influential my parents were in their lives.”
Dr. Peterson’s wife, Mildred shared his love of kids and animals, and was very proud of her husband’s accomplishments. She saved all the newspaper clippings, photos and memorabilia from his OSU career; many of these have now been scanned and added to the OSU archives.
In her will, Mildred Peterson left a contribution to the scholarship fund at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. “My mom had such a passion for what my dad did, and was so proud of what he had done in his life. My sister and I talked about it, and decided to build on her contribution to create a scholarship in perpetuity.” The generous donations of the three women have now become the Kermit and Mildred Peterson Scholarship which is awarded to a veterinary student each year.
“I’m really proud to be able to do something in their name, because he was so passionate about veterinary education, and starting a veterinary school,” says Smith. “He really wanted that for Oregon and it’s so great that it now exists.”
Dr. Peterson’s research was focused on dairy cattle.