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James Law

America's First Veterinary Epidemiologist and

The Equine Influenza Epizootic of 1872

By Brigadier Dr. Thomas Murnane


Presented by Thomas G. Murnane, DVM, DACVPM Brigadier General, US Army Retired to the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Veterinary Medical History Society in New Orleans, LA, July 21, 2008


Remarkably, James Law, a 1857 graduate of the Veterinary College in Edinburgh, certified by the Highland and Agricultural Society (1857) and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (London) in 1861, was successfully recruited to the faculty of Cornell University as Professor of the nascent department of veterinary science. He and his family arrived in the United States in 1868 after a period of less then 6 months pursuit by Cornell's President Andrew White.

Law was an academic associate of Professor John Gamgee, a distinguished British veterinarian eight years Law's senior, Gamgee served as an early mentor to Law.  Gamgee was an outspoken proponent of the contagion theory and food hygiene. Law shared these convictions which served him well in his investigative studies of animal diseases and as an advocate of public health.

The US Commissioner of Agriculture, Frederick Watts, appointed Dr. Law to investigate the equine influenza epizootic which had erupted in the United States in October, 1872, following the introduction of infected horses from Canada where the disease was well underway.

Law authored "Influenza in Horses" which appeared in the Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1872. Law's account was the seminal and most substantive investigative report of the 1872 equine influenza epizootic, adding to his growing reputation as a leader in veterinary medicine in the United States and designation (author's) as America's first veterinary epidemiologist.

The equine influenza epizootic of 1872 might rightfully be deemed a panzootic.  Over the course of one year, September 1872 - September 1873, equine influenza engulfed the equine population of Canada and its maritime provinces, the United States and its western territories, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean islands. Virtually every horse, mule and donkey, particularly in urban areas of the Americas, was sickened and temporarily disabled. Mortality was low, 1-5%, except in mules and donkeys which were more severely affected. Many more mules and donkeys died than horses.

The attached newspaper and periodical accounts attest to the severity of the influenza epizootic and disruptive effects on transport and work horse power.

Law's distinctive contribution in his investigative report to the Commissioner earns him the designation "America's first veterinary epidemiologist."

James Law, America's First Veterinary Epidemiologist and the Equine Influenza Epizootic of 1872

 Remarkably, Andrew Dickson White, then Comell University's president, successfully recruited James Law, an 1857 graduate of the Veterinary College, Edinburgh, Scotland to the faculty of Cornell' s nascent veterinary science department in 1868. In the preceding ten years Law had pursued professional studies at Edinburgh's Medical School and the veterinary schools at Lyons and Alfort, France. He was a member of the Royal Veterinary College. His early mentor, John Gamgee was a distinguished English veterinarian, academician and editor of the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. Gamgee was a proponent of the controversial contagion theory, holding that epidemics/epizootics were caused by a living poison and not meteorological conditions, miasmas or fungi. Law's shared conviction of this belief would serve him well in his subsequent investigation and studies of the equine influenza epizootic of 1872 in the United States.

James Law abandoned an obviously progressive career in a more advanced veterinary medical environment in the United Kingdom than existed in the United States at the time. In fact, President White in early correspondence, July 1868, advised Law

"there is at present hardly anything in the way of scientific veterinary teaching in America - indeed I may safely say there is none - ".

There were a few graduates of reputable English and European veterinary schools: Drs. H.J. Detmers and Milliken Stalker. There were other practioners certified by failed American veterinary schools and medical doctors with veterinary science certificates or degrees: A.F. Liautard. Approximately 75 veterinarians were in the urban areas of the northeast and 25 in the midwest in 1870.

The United States was virtually bereft of any veterinary medical education. The New York American Veterinary College, also known as the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons, was the single viable veterinary school active in the United States upon Law's arrival in 1868.

Elsewhere in North America there was the Ontario Veterinary College in Toronto, Canada, which graduated its first students in 1866, some whom subsequently practiced in the United States. The school of Veterinary Medicine, Mexico City, Mexico, established by decree of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, August 17, 1853, graduated its first class of six veterinarians in 1856.

The first semblance of veterinary medical organization in the United States came with the establishment of the United States Veterinary Medical Association (USVMA) in 1863 and, subsequently, the publication of the Association's official journal, The American Veterinary Review in 1877. Professor A. Liautard was the editor of this first exclusive veterinary publication in the United States. It was preceded by periodic veterinary medical reports appearing in farrier and agriculture journals. In the 1850's, there were more agricultural journals in the US than anywhere else in the world.

Thus was the status of veterinary medicine in the US. As shallow as the veterinary profession was at the time of lames Law's arrival at Cornell in 1868, he undoubtedly perceived an opportunity to influence the foundation and advancement of veterinary medical education and practice in America. He was to be paid the handsome "sum of $2,250 per annum until his income outside his profession shall be $500. After that his salary to be $2,000." Gamgee, Law's early mentor and professional associate in academia had arrived in America in early 1868 to attend the 5th semiannual meeting of the USVMA. At that time he learned of Mr. Ezra Comell's new university at Ithaca. Comell was a state senator and colleague of White. Their financial resources led to the founding of Comell University. Gamgee visited the campus and spoke with Mr. Comell and President White. He discovered their interest in having a veterinarian on the faculty. In ensuing correspondence, Gamgee strongly recommended Law for the position, not only advancing Law for the consideration but also, perhaps, personal benefits.

President White, in conjunction with planned travel to England, arranged a visit with Law in London, England for July 2nd of 1868. White found Law "vastly superior to any candidate" and jubilantly announced the engagement of "James Law of Belfast, Ireland, as Professor of Veterinary Surgery and Medicine at Cornell University." Or. Lames Law and his family arrived in Ithaca, New York, September 1st, 1868. President White had acted unhesitatingly and swiftly on Gamgee's letter of recommendation.

The appointment of Law to the faculty of Comell University as Chair of the Department of Veterinary Science (1868) was the beginning of truly academic veterinary medicine the United States. One of the great expectations of Ezra Comell was coming to fruition. However, for lack of legislative funding, school progress was delayed. Comell University did not graduate its first doctors of veterinary medicine until 1897, seventeen years after the Iowa State (1880) and ten years after the Ohio State (1887) schools of veterinary medicine graduated their first veterinary students.

Law was far from idle. He developed a comprehensive veterinary medical curriculum enabling the award of a Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVS) degree to men who were to distinguish themselves in veterinary medicine like Daniel E. Salmon who received his BVS in 1872 and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) in 1876, the first ever DVM awarded in the United States. Law, an uncompromising champion of higher veterinary education, was to become one of America's foremost veterinary educators.

Apart from his progressively successful academic career, Law, early on emerged as a national leader in animal health and public health, serving in advisory and leadership roles with state and national agencies. His "Farmer's Veterinary Advisor: A Guide to the Prevention and Treatment of Diseases of Domestic Animals" was the single animal health text incorporated in the "Standard Supply Table of Veterinary Medicine and Instrument for Use in the (US) Army", beginning 1878.

Following on the heels of his mentor, John Gamgee, who had been invited in 1861 to investigate and report to the United States Commissioner of Agriculture, the Honorable Horace Capron, on the indigenous status of bovine pluro-pneumonia (lung plague) and spleenic fever (Texas cattle fever), Law, too, was commissioned to report on the horse epizootic of 1872.

The equine influenza epizootic of 1872 in the United States began about mid October, in horses stabled in the Detroit area. They were infected by diseased horses introduced from Canada where the disease first appeared in late September. The epizootic or, more correctly, panzootic continued for a full year engulfing all the United States, the western territories, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean islands. This was not a new disease to the North American continent. Earlier outbreaks had occurred in the English colonies in 1767 and later in the New England states, 1781. The epizootic is the most severe, in terms of morbidity, and widespread animal disease experienced in the United States.

Although mortality was low, ranging from 1% - 5%, virtually the entire horse population, particularly in cities, was sickened and disabled. The epizootic temporarily terminated horse transport and power. Equine influenza reappeared, to some extent, again in 1875.

Law's first published comment on the equine disease appeared in the Ithaca Journal and was subsequently reproduced in The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, November 7, 1872. He stated, "This is nothing else then epiglottic catarrah or influenza of horses, which at irregular intervals sweeps over entire continents prostrating the whole equine creation." These were prophetic words at the time.

"Influenza in Horses" which appeared in the Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the year 1872 was authored by Or. James Law. Other relevant accounts of the epizootic appeared about this time also, notably by A.B. Judson, MD, Professor A.F. Liautard, MD, VS, then consulting veterinary surgeon to the New York City Board of Health and Z. Collins McElroy, MD. Law's report appeared before others. Judson references Law and the NY City Board of Health account references Judson's report.

James Law's report to the Commissioner of Agriculture was the seminal and most substantive investigative report of the 1872 equine influenza epizootic in the United States. The forty-five page report, including some seven pages of weather data reflects Law's, then 34 years old, broad range of professional talents. A thorough and careful investigator he employed the epidemiological tools of the era and reported his investigation in classical scientific and literary style. He was renowned for his writing ability as noted in comments by Professor Gamgee and President White.

Law's report was expansive and incorporated:

1. An introduction

2. A definition of the disease

3. Synonyms

4. A past history of epizootic cartarrah in animals and man

5. The history of the extent of the disease in the United States since 1871

6. The symptoms and course of the disease

7. Post mortem appearances - vividly describing systemic tissue changes

8. Causes of influenza - addressing the many beliefs surrounding the cause of disease epidemics and epizootics.

"No wonder" wrote Law, "that we should have had all imaginable general conditions of the earth, water and air involved to explain its occurrence: lowness and dampness of a locality, altitude, exposure and coldness, crowding, impurities in soil, water and air, the vicissitudes of weather, damp acrid of feted fog, high or low atmospheric density, excessive ozone, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions; modified conditions of atmospheric electricity." Continuing, Dr. Law stated, "The epizootic of 1872 affords but the slenderest appearance of support to any of these hypotheses." Law details relevant climatic conditions, refuting these causal possibilities but not denying that some might exacerbate the disease: for example, Professor Kingston of the Magnetic Observatory, Toronto, provided a meteorological register for the month of September in 1871 and 1872 (at which time the influenza outbreak began in Canada) and an additional record of the same month for the last 28 years at the same place. "From these tables it is manifest that there were no extraordinary state nor extreme changes in the weather during the whole month, the last days of which witnessed the outbreak." Additional tables for October, 1871 and 1872, "show that month to have been no more remarkable through the period of greatest prevalence of the influenza."

As to the question of ozone, Dr. Law enlisted the aid of Professor Kedzie of Michigan Agricultural College, Lansing, Michigan, who provided information on the amount of atmospheric ozone before and during the prevalence of the disease. Kedzie reported excess ozone at Lansing during the influenza period. Law regretted that comparative observations were not obtainable from all parts of the continent but stated, "That the ozone has been generally in excess is possible, and that it lays the system open to attack of the specific poison ( Note: the germ or microbe theory of disease was not established by Robert Koch until 1876 and subsequently confirmed by Louis Pasteur the following year) is not at all unreasonable, but it (ozone) cannot be looked upon as the one and essential cause of the disease." Law further reasoned, "Why has the soliped been the only victim since man has often shared the calamity on previous occasions? And above all, why has the disease in every instance pursued a regular progress over the land in keeping with the facilities for rapid transport?" Later he remarked, "The present visitation has shown an unmistakable tendency to progress most rapidly along the great lines of commerce and travel."

Dispelling the popular beliefs regarding disease causation, Dr. Law concludes: "The only theory that will accord with the history of this malady and its steady increase and extension is that which recognizes the existence of a "contagion", capable like other specific disease poisons, of assimilating its appropriate food, of reproducing its elements, and of thereby increasing the area of disease."

Continuing, Law stated, "The existence of a contagion being acknowledged, the question next arises as to its nature," viz., fungi, other low organisms or "a pathogenic element in the infinitesimal granules of organic matter, found floating in the infecting atmosphere, as well as in the solids and fluids of the animal body." Law in collaboration with other microscopists showed "no specific vegetable germs have been found in the air, blood or nasal discharges during the prevalence of influenza." He concluded, "The other doctrine is the most reasonable one, and is one that appears to explain all the pathological phenomena, and is a specific virulent element, which finds in the body of a susceptible animal, the material essential to its growth, its unlimited reproduction and extensive diffusion. The air may still be involved as an important medium through which the dried or drying virus (at that time an archaic expression for venom or poison) or bioplasm may be carried long distances and infect new animals and localities."

'The only other tenable hypothesis appears to be that of a true contagium. Particles of the living body (granules or bioplasm) are given off in myriads, are carried widely by the air, and infect other animals." For a pre-germ theory scientist, Dr. Law describes remarkably the pathogeneses of the disease.

Epidemiologists study disease in its natural habitat, away from the controlled environment of the laboratory. Dr. lames Law's exhaustive investigative report of the equine influenza epizootic of 1872 incorporated the best of intuitive, quantitative, ecological and etiological approaches of the era. This seminal epidemiologal publication establishes lames Law as America's first veterinary epidemiologist.

Despite growing public service and academic responsibilities, Law found time to contribute to the student paper, The Comell Era. In December of 1868 he wrote an article concerning the need for veterinary education in the United States not only for the preservation of herds and flocks but for the protection of human populations as well. He stated "the great object of veterinary science is the prevention and cure of diseases in animals. Attention is usually given to the latter to the exclusion of the former. Yet it is in the prevention of disease that the greatest triumphs are to be won." Law was a man beyond his time, fitting well into the theme "One Health - World Health Through Collaboration" of this national meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

For more information:

An overview of the great epizootic (where there are many more links to government documents).

Press cuttings presented by Dr. Murnane with this paper.

Report and Papers presented at the meeting of the American Public Health Association in 1873.

Interview with Dr. Murnane discussing the Australian equine influenza outbreak in 2007.


[n the preparation of this article and its presentation I was ably assisted by the following individuals: Nancy Duran, Assistant Professor, Texas A & M University Libraries, Medical Science Library who retrieved Law's report on the equine influenza (El) epizootic to the Commissioner of Agriculture. The account stimulated my interest in Dr. Law's epidemiologic skills leading to this project. Thereafter, she provided a number of commissioner reports and articles from journals, newspapers and periodicals. adding to the depth of this paper; Susanne Whitaker, Secretary/Treasurer American Veterinary Medical History Society who encouraged the preparation of this report and aided substantially by providing copies of pertinent sections from Leonard' s history of Cornell's Veterinary College, Thompson's The Remarkable Gamgees and a copy from Law's personal library of Judson's article on the El epizootic, adding wonderful insight to two very prominent figures in veterinary medical history; Constance M. Richardson, my daughter, who most willingly and patiently transcribes my written words to the error free, wonderfully formatted, typed presentations and manuscripts. Without the assistance of these tine women this project would not have been possible.


1.Adjutant General's Office, Headquarters of the US Army. General Orders No. 36 "A Standard Supply Table of Veterinary Medicines and Instruments for Use in the Army." March 27, 1879.

2.American Veterinary Medical Association. Membership Directory and Resource Manual 2008 - 2009. A VMA Schaumburg, Illinois.

3.Bierer, B.W. A Short Historv of Veterinary Medicine in America. Michigan State University Press, 1955.

4.Dodge, J.R. "Numbers and Conditions of Farm Animals." Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1875. Washington Government Printing Office, 1876

5.Gamgee, John. "Report of Professor John Gamgee on the Spleenic or Periodic Fever of Cattle." Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture on Diseases of Cattle in the United States. Washington: Government Printing Office 1871

6.Judson, Adoniram B. "History and Course of the Epizootic Among Horses Upon the North American Continent in 1872-73." Public Health Reports and Papers, American Public Health Association, 1873. Hurd and Houghton, New York. pp 88-109. 1875

7.Law, James. "Influenza in Horses". In The Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture for the Year 1872. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1874; pp 203-248

8.Leonard, Ellis Pierson. A Cornell Heritage: Veterinary Medicine 1868-1908.

New York State College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York, 1979.

9.Liautard, A.F., MD, VS. "Report on the Epizootic as It Appeared in New York."

In: Appendix to the Annual Report of the Board of Health, New York for 1872. New York, 1873. pp 276

10.McClure, J.P. "The Epizootic of 1872: Horses and Disease in a Nation in Motion." New York History January, 1988.

11.McElroy, Z. Coli ins, MD. "The Epizootic Among Horses and Hybrids." The Medical Archives IX. 1, January 1873.

12.Smith, Ronald D. Veterinary Clinical Epidemiology A Problem Oriented Approach. 1991. Bullerworth-Hernemann. Boston. pp 1

13.Smithcors, J.F. The Veterinarian in America 1625 - 1975. American Veterinary Publications, Inc. 1975

14.Stalheim, OV. "The Spread of European Veterinary Education to Some Early American Schools" Vet. Heritage. 19: 24-29, 1996

15. Teigen, P.M. "James Law" American National Biography on Line

16.Teigen, P.M. "Nineteenth - Century Veterinary Medicine as an Urban Profession."Vet. Heritage 23: 1 - 5,2000.

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