Women make up 57% of the student population of U.S. colleges. In veterinary medicine, women hold 78% of the seats, and now outnumber men in veterinary practice.
When Pam Wagner vonMatthiessen graduated from the UC Davis veterinary program in 1976, it was a different story. Women were rare in veterinary medicine, especially large animal medicine. But vonMatthiessen was a lifelong horse lover with a dream of being an equine surgeon, so she didn’t let the prevailing norms stop her.
After receiving her DVM, vonMatthiessen went on to an internship and residency in equine surgery at WSU under the mentorship of Dr. Barrie Grant. “At that time being a woman in any large animal field was a novelty,” she says. “I distinctly remember hearing ranchers coming in and saying to the receptionist ‘Don’t give me one of those female vets’. I decided to take it as a challenge and see if I couldn’t change their minds. And it worked! I found that by being understanding of their reluctance, listening to their story and being compassionate, a lot of prejudice could be overcome. By the time I left WSU I had a loyal following.”
VonMatthiessen was lucky to have supportive mentors, both at WSU and, later, at OSU and Tufts. “In the academic setting, which at that time was largely male, I do feel women in large animal surgery had to work harder to be taken seriously,” she says. “My mentors, Dr. Barrie Grant, Dr. Michael Shires [OSU Hospital Director] and Dr. Frank Loew always pushed me to be all I could be, to publish and to give lectures and symposiums, and to take on novel research projects that would help me advance academically in the equine field.”
One of those projects was germinated at a Las Vegas convention on human orthopedic surgery. In 1979, vonMatthiessen and Grant had a dinner conversation about Wobbler Disease with human surgeon Dr. George Bagby. He suggested that human medical techniques using spinal decompression might help horses as well.
That conversation blossomed into a collaboration, where Bagby worked with vonMatthiessen and Grant to develop and test spine stabilization techniques in horses that turned out to be very effective in treating Wobblers. “I went on to do my Master’s thesis on the surgical correction of equine cervical spinal cord compression in horses,” says vonMatthiessen. “The technique has come a long way since then. At first, we used bone dowels taken from the equine hip bone to stabilize the column. Since then, a basket of steel, now titanium, has been developed.” [See Animal Connection for related story.]
VonMatthiessen went on to become board-certified in equine surgery in 1984. “She was a ground breaker”, says Dr. Jill Parker, current CVM equine surgeon. “When I started my internship in 1983, there was only one woman (Midge Leitch, 1982) who was board-certified and doing equine surgery. It was very helpful to me to see someone doing what I wanted to do.”