a World of Difference
There is much that veterinarians can do
to help developing countries, prof says
Photo by Herb Rauscher
"King" seemed like rather a grand epithet.
After all, Prof. John McDermott, Population Medicine, had
only just been upgraded from a tent to a hut in a southern
Sudanese village of less than 1,000 people. And in a part
of the world that accorded status solely on a person's livestock
head count, this Canadian veterinarian might have been considered
among the lowest of the low.
"If you don't have cattle in Dinka society, you don't
belong," says McDermott, recalling his first experience
in Africa two decades ago as a then-fledgling veterinary
graduate from U of G. As with other pastoral societies,
social and kinship relations - even matters of personal
honour and integrity - were interwoven with ownership of
livestock. "For the Dinka, it's not a livelihood strategy,
it's a vocation."
But as a veterinarian, he found that he and his wife, Brigid,
also a Guelph grad, had something better: ties to the developed
world that offered the prospect of economic development
and hope for the Sudanese.
"Veterinarians were kings," he says, explaining
that his title allowed him to ask questions and gain insights
into their lives. "For me, it was fantastic. You're
dealing with the most important thing in their lives."
Since then, much of that East African country has been
overrun by civil war. And McDermott himself has moved on.
Having begun a leave of absence from U of G in 1997 as a
researcher with the International Livestock Research Institute
(ILRI) based in Nairobi, Kenya, he was named the organization's
deputy director general and research director earlier this
His experience in Africa has given him another insight.
Besides showing him the importance of livestock in rural
people's lives, vet studies have provided an entree into
international development and the use of science to better
the lot of developing countries, he says.
"There are so many things you can do to help people
in developing countries with the skills we have as veterinarians.
You can really make a difference in many countries."
McDermott shared that message with Guelph colleagues and
students last month as keynote speaker at a mini-symposium
on international development hosted by the Ontario Veterinary
College and as this year's Schofield Memorial Lecturer.
OVC established the lecture in 1970 to honour Francis Schofield,
a veterinary pathologist who taught at the college from
1921 to 1955.
"It seemed fitting to tie together a speaker of John's
stature and international contribution with the fact that
he is an OVC graduate," says Prof. Wayne McDonell,
assistant dean, research and graduate affairs, for the college.
Growing up in Stouffville, McDermott initially planned
to become a large-animal veterinarian somewhere in rural
Ontario. It was while studying at Guelph that he found windows
opening on international development.
"When I was a student, I became interested in infections,
disease and population medicine, rather than the clinical
After completing his DVM in 1981, he worked for a farm
service clinic before heading off to Sudan on a two-year
research contract funded by the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization. He began post-graduate work in
1984, earning an MPVM from the University of California,
Davis, in 1985 and a PhD from Guelph in 1990. That same
year, he was appointed a faculty member in OVC.
McDermott studies infectious diseases, mostly vector-borne
afflictions such as sleeping sickness. He also studies the
delivery of animal health services such as vaccination programs
in developing countries.
He says his administrative appointment this spring gives
him a broader view of the ILRI and its research programs
on three continents. "I want to ensure research is
targeted toward development outcomes."
With a budget of $28 million US and a staff of about 70
scientists and several hundred research assistants, the
institute is based in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research, the ILRI also has offices in other African countries
as well as the Philippines, China, India and Colombia.
Acknowledging that Africa particularly needs help with
stark human health problems, especially HIV/AIDS, McDermott
says it's also important to deal with daily survival issues
in rural communities, home to three out of four Africans.
The ILRI has helped highlight how important livestock is
for livelihoods of the poor, he says.
One ILRI effort, for example, is focused on developing
a new vaccine against East Coast fever, a parasite-borne
cattle disease that costs African farmers more than $170
million US a year in direct losses. The ILRI has sought
out private-sector partners to speed up development of the
vaccine, which McDermott expects will be available in about
five years. "That's a lot faster than it used to be."
During the OVC mini-symposium on international development
last month, several students discussing their own African
research projects mentioned their ties to McDermott, either
as their supervisor or adviser or as a contact for that
part of the world. His students have examined everything
from helping communities assess and manage natural resources
to control of tsetse flies in efforts to prevent sleeping
sickness in Uganda.
Prof. Andrew Peregrine, Pathobiology, says he routinely
suggests that Guelph students aiming to work in East Africa
put a conversation with McDermott on their "must do"
list. Peregrine, who himself worked as a scientist at the
predecessor institute to the ILRI, recalls that McDermott
played a key role at the University of Nairobi in establishing
a veterinary epidemiology teaching and research program
while on faculty there before joining the ILRI.
"It showed the benefits of in-country training,"
says Peregrine. "They were training Kenyans in Kenya,
with research projects in Kenya."
Brigid McDermott, who studied agriculture and mathematics
and statistics at Guelph, has worked with her husband and
the institute on various projects. Currently, she is a statistician
at the University of Nairobi.