ALUMNI- IN-ACTION ORAL HISTORY
DR. JAY M. ISA, OVC’38
Ontario Veterinary College, 1938
Interviewed by Dr. J. Ross Singleton
May 27, 1993
This interview, for the University of Guelph Alumni Association, Alumni-in-Action Committee, Oral History, by Dr. J. Ross Singleton, OVC’49, is with Dr. J. M. Isa at his home in Winnipeg. His home is shared with his wife, Dr. Anne Laidlaw. The date is May 27, 1993
R Where were you born, Dr. Isa?
J I was born at Dauphin, Manitoba in 1905 - October 12th.
R Did you spend all your formative years at Dauphin?
J No, my family was living at a place called Pine River which is a spot on the CNR line north of Dauphin and my mother went to the hospital at Dauphin for my birth.
R Did you move to Winnipeg, after that, Dr. Isa?
J I don't know just when - but not too long after I was born - maybe I was 2 or 3 - I'm not sure. The family left Pine River and moved to Winnipeg where my father was occupied with a number of jobs and finally joined a company that sent him to Dauphin, Manitoba to open a store in 1913. Mother and children lived in Winnipeg until 1915, and father visited us from time to time, and in 1915 all of us moved to Dauphin - that was early in the year.
R So you got your High School education in Dauphin and you graduated from Grade 12, I presume?
J For reasons which I might explain later, I was a year late, actually, because they split my Gr. 12 to keep me at home so I took Grade 12 in two years and graduated from there in the spring of '24.
R I understand that before you entered the Veterinary College you entered University of Manitoba.
J Oh yes, even as far back as Grade 9, I tried to impress my parents that I wanted to attend the Veterinary College. Well that was 1200 miles away and their child would be alone and they couldn't quite see me going all that distance to a school. After a great deal of discussion over several years, we compromised – that means, I gave up - and they decided that I would attend the Manitoba Agricultural College in Winnipeg, where I registered, and I remember the day, Oct. 12, 1925.
R Did you graduate from Agricultural College?
J Yes - Remember this was Agriculture - "agriculture in relation to farming". The idea was that you came to the college after the fall work was done or just about
done, so we didn't turn up there until the middle of October and you left early to get into the spring seeding and whatnot, which meant that we left in April. Therefore, a course in Agriculture occupied 5 years instead of the University term of 4 years. So I graduated in 1930.
R What did you do in the summer months - obviously your father wasn't a farmer?
J Because he wasn't a farmer and I didn't have any farm experience, after the first year in Agriculture I went out West to Saskatchewan and worked on a farm. The second summer I worked on the University Research Plots as a teamster. The third summer, I worked in the College Dairy.
R I believe that was your specialty, wasn't it?
J Well that was the specialty that I took at the Agricultural College.
R What products did you manufacture in the dairy?
J Well, besides supplying the college with fluid milk, we manufactured butter, ice cream and cheese - hard cheeses, like Cheddar, gouda and edam and probably others, and then soft cheeses like cottage cheese and Neufchatel. We also maintained cultures of lacto-bacillus acidophilus and lacto bacillus bulgaricus - tremendous words.
R Was that for culturing the cheese?
J Yes and for consumption. The following year, which would be the summer of 1929, I worked in a creamery at Melville, Saskatchewan for the glory of some $15 a week. I lived out - that is, I had to pay my board and room at a home in Melville.
R You weren't getting wealthy on that.
J I certainly wasn't getting wealthy.
R So what education did you have prior to entering the Veterinary College?
J By the time I entered the Veterinary College, I had an Agricultural degree and I had a Masters degree. I entered the Vet College and was granted the first year, so I went right into the second year.
R What did you get your Masters in? I presume you wrote a thesis.
J Oh yes, there was a thesis and that involved work with bovine spermatozoa. Dr. Savage, my chief, had done a considerable amount of work on bovine spermatozoa in collaboration with Dr. Williams, I think his name was, of Cornell, and they had pretty well worked out a system of grading bulls on the basis of bovine spermatozoa. They could pick good bulls and they could pick out the poor ones - with a few exceptions. That was done by measuring the projected image of a spermatozoa through a microscope onto a screen. When you gathered the 500 measurements you could put them through a statistical exercise that gave you various mathematical characteristics. This did a good job with a few exceptions and these exceptions bothered Dr. Savage and he thought if I took this on as a Masters Thesis it would be a good piece of work. So we developed an instrument to measure not head length, but head areas and that was quite a job. However, we made it work and went
through the whole deal again, over several months, measuring head areas and compared this material that we collected with the material that Dr. Savage and Dr. Williams had produced and we found that we could place these irregular populations in their correct position statistically. At the time I knew a lot about statistics, but it went in and only stayed for a short time.
R This work that you are talking about was done at University of Manitoba in the Veterinary Laboratory under Dr. Alfred Savage?
J Yes, in the Dept of Bacteriology and Animal Pathology.
R How did you get to work with Dr. Savage?
J Well, the spring of 1930 was an awfully poor time to graduate - a very poor time. The Crash of '29 had occurred - everything was tight - business was getting poorer and poorer. My specialty, which was control management - technical control management - in the dairy industry sounded good. It was a good profession as far as I was concerned but when I went to all the managers of creameries in Winnipeg, they simply shrugged and said they couldn't possibly engage me in the capacity of what my job was. They'd give me a floor job - that is a laborer's job - for $15 a week and I was very, very discouraged. At about that time, the head of the Department of Bacteriology, Dr. Charlie Lee, decided quite suddenly that he was going to retire in the spring. Then we heard that his assistant in the Department of Bacteriology decided to retire too. Here was a Department with nobody in it. Then the Agricultural College Board (or I'm not quite sure who, because we were in transition - the Agricultural College was becoming a faculty of the University at about the same time) prevailed upon Doc Savage to become the administrator of the Department of Bacteriology as well as being the head of his own Department of Animal Pathology. Well, he didn't have any money to go out in the academic world and pick up a couple of bacteriologists and he had to find somebody on the faculty of the University and he got two men from the Dairy Department with whom I had done a lot of work and they took over - Professor James as Professor of Bacteriology and Morley Jamieson as the Assistant Professor or some grade under the professorship. From my point of view these two men had their hands full. They knew bacteriology because they were good dairymen. They knew some bacteriology but they really had to educate themselves and prepare lectures and do everything they were supposed to do and I could see, selfishly perhaps, that there was room for me in that Department. So in the spring (it was actually in examination time - final exams in the final year) I went to Doc Savage and I put this proposition to him. Could he use a technician or a technologist along with these other two men. And he said, "I don't know who you are." Well, I said, "I've been around for almost 5 years and you know everybody on the Faculty of the Agricultural College, maybe you could find out who I am." He said, "I'll do that. Come and see me after the last exam." Which I did. He said, "start working tomorrow." It might have been Monday or something. So that's how I got to be a technician in the Department of Microbiology.
R How long did you work as a technician?
J Until I went to Veterinary School. But there were a lot of things that happened in
the meantime. First, Dr Savage encouraged me to take the odd course towards a Masters Degree. I did that. Then we mutually decided that eventually when I had time to do a thesis it would be on the subject that I have just described. It was a great education for me. Not only did I get a lot of training in maintaining a bacteriology teaching lab, I had to maintain a whole battery of microscopes for the students - that was good training in itself. Other than the routine lab work that I did in the Department of Bacteriology, Dr Savage would call me into his section of the lab once in a while and I learned to do an autopsy properly on a chicken and on a pig. Of course Dr Savage did all the diagnosing. I learned to do various types of serological tests and I eagerly took on the job of learning how to make histological sections.
R Using a microtome and staining slides and all those sorts of things?
R Jay, one thing I forgot to ask you at the start, what got you interested in Veterinary Medicine as a career?
J Well, we had lived in what they called the north end of Dauphin - we were north of the tracks on Second Avenue and for reasons which I don't think I have to go into now, we moved to south end, almost on Main Street. Just a block away was a big livery barn and in the corner of the livery barn was the office of a Veterinarian. His name was Dr Frank Bryant. He was an easterner and had graduated at OVC at the beginning of the century and had come West and settled in Dauphin. That livery bam attracted me a great deal and whenever I got a chance I was in there. I was fascinated by this man and the work he did in the livery barn. There were occasions, especially in the summer time, I'd be down there and he'd be heading out on a call and he'd say, "Come on boy, let's go" and we'd go out in the country and he'd attend horses and he'd attend cattle. I didn't see him do any work with swine. His practice was actually a horse practice and this fascinated me. As I grew a little older, I talked a great deal about this man Frank Bryant and suggested that I might become a veterinarian some day. This idea was frowned upon by my parents. Frank Bryant, the veterinarian - not a very good reputation! By 1916 prohibition had taken place, and the veterinarian seemed to be prescribing a great deal of alcohol for his horse patients and the word got around. He didn't give two hoots about that. I guess he made quite a bit of money, and the druggist where he got his liquor made an awful lot of money and his reputation suffered of course. And my parents thought - this man, Frank Bryant, be like him - not a chance. However, discussions over several years didn't change their minds - the next excuse was that the Ontario Veterinary College was at least 1200 miles away and I wasn't going to go that far away from home alone for anything.
R After you graduated in Agriculture and got into Dr. Savage's lab, what stimulated you to go to veterinary college?
J Well, of course, Dr. Savage. What he was doing and what I watched him do and helped him do in the barns as well as in the lab...
R So, the reason for getting a veterinary degree at that time was to enable you to work
as a veterinarian in the laboratory?
J Oh, yes, that was my passion - to be a Pathologist. I just loved the idea of an academic or semi-academic career rather than driving all through the country and rough-handling animals. I'd work in a lab - that suited me fine, and that's what I wanted to do.
R So how did you travel to Guelph?
J Well, the first year I traveled on what was called a 'cattle train'. It wasn't entirely cattle. The Health of Animals Branch helped me in this. I somehow acquired what they called a 'contract' and I was contracted by somebody to conduct two carloads of calves to a place called Strathroy, in Ontario. Where the calves came from, I don't know, but they were attached to a train that was leaving Winnipeg on a dark night sometime in the fall of 1935. There was a little colony car attached to the back end of this long freight train and there were 12 of us with contracts in this car heading east. That's a frightful story in itself. However, by the time this freight train had pulled out of Winnipeg and been on the road for half an hour, that little car was stuffed full of men who were riding the rods. It was a cold night and I guess they all came in over the top of the reefers and the freight cars and down into the little colony car at the end of the train. There was hardly a place to sit down. They stayed with us until well on -1 think when we got to White River they just vanished because everybody knew the reputation of the CNR cops at White River. They were pretty brutal, I understand.
R When you got to Guelph...
J The train just slowed down when we got to Toronto just behind the railway station and they told us to jump off.
R And how did you travel in Guelph?
J You mean from the College? Mostly by "shanks mare". I didn't have very much money and once in a while I traveled by streetcar from the top of the hill where the College is located to downtown, but most of the time we walked. There were several of us in the same fix.
R How about accommodation?
J Well, when I got to Guelph, I was astonished and felt very badly about it. The veterinary students couldn't get accommodation in the residence of the Agricultural College. We were not allowed to live there and therefore we had to find accommodation in the town. Three of us from Winnipeg, the two Morrow brothers and myself, found rooms at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Yeates, at the foot of the hill next to a place called Edgehill that was a famous eating and boarding house. That's where I spent my first year at Guelph. The next two years, a roommate and I spent our years with a family called Bailey. I think Bailey worked in the greenhouses at the Ontario Agricultural College and he gave us accommodation in his house, which was very handy.
R You entered the Veterinary College very well educated compared to most. Did you get credit for most of that education?
J Oh, yes, I got credit for courses in Animal Husbandry and Poultry Husbandry and Dairying, I think.
R You didn't have to go over to the Agricultural College?
J No, and I started out thinking I'd like to review my course in Organic Chemistry, but I didn't like the professor and I didn't like the way they ran their Lab, so I said "I'll take credit for that too." So I had credit and time - that gave me time - to do a lot of library studying - not at the Veterinary College. The only thing that was available in the library at the Veterinary College was agricultural papers and agricultural magazines. The books, such as they were, were on shelves behind glass doors that were locked. I recall wanting to borrow a book and there was no way that I knew of, so I went to the Registrar's office and I said, "Mr Sheppard, how do I get a book out of the library?" And you know, this was a new idea to him, apparently, from the fuss it caused. He got a bunch of keys and he got a card and he wrote my name on this, and the book I wanted he said, "I want that book back in an hour." I said, "That's no good to me at all. I want the book for a weekend or whatever." "Oh, no, no, you can't do that." Well, I found that over at the Agricultural College, the library was very well stocked with Veterinary books, to my surprise, and I did quite a bit of studying over there. I had free access there –I was a graduate in Agriculture. Two other of my classmates - Dr. Jack See and Dr. Grant Misener - had graduated at the Agriculture College the spring of the year that I went down to vet college - we formed a team at the vet college. They, of course, were well known over there and they introduced me to a whole club over at the Agricultural College - the Graduates' club. These were graduates who were working in various labs at the Agricultural College and I went back and forth. You know, I was regarded with some suspicion by the veterinary students - they didn't do that sort of thing.
R I have a list of your classmates here. I noticed that you graduated in 1938 and there were quite a few people in the class...
J About 52
R I note that you got the 3rd prize in the Honor Roll standing.
J When we graduated in the Convocation Hall in Toronto, and I think that was about May 17th, yes, I stood 3rd in the Class. The old Chancellor of the University was there. This elderly gentleman in his late 90's with a beard down to his belly-button, made the announcement -1st prize, 2nd prize, Isa, 3rd prize and he hands this book to me and chortles to himself and says, "Take care of it boy, heh, heh, heh, it's full of meat" which it was.
R I was mentioning that I had a list of your classmates and I also have a list of your professors and I see that C. D. McGillvray was the principal; Dr Fowler was in charge of Surgery; MacIntosh, Diseases of Cattle; Dr Batt was Histology; Dr Schofield, Pathology and Bacteriology.
J And Vicky Brown was in charge of the dissection lab in Anatomy.
R Did you have to take Anatomy?
J Oh, yes, in fact we had to take 2 years of Anatomy in one because we went into our
second year - that is Misener, See and myself, and we had to make up for the first year Anatomy. That was awfully tough. That is where I used a lot of my spare time, not taking the other courses like Animal Husbandry and Poultry, I spent quite a bit of time in the dissection lab when it was free. Of course I couldn't get in there and just butt into the work when all the first year men were doing their stuff.
R As a student, did you work in the Veterinary College besides the regular veterinary studies? Did you work for the professors?
J Well not work in terms of work for financial reward. Schofield found out that I could make sections and he asked me to make a few for him and apparently he thought I did fairly well because he set up a little lab for me and urged me to spend as much time as I could making sections for him.
R That must have been rewarding...
J Not financially...
R So, I want to get into a little bit of the work that you did. Did you work on glanders at one time?
J No, I didn't work in glanders.
R Equine encephalitis?
J I did work on that in the summer of 1937. I worked for Dr. Mungo Lewis of Winnipeg, and in spite of the fact that he had a small animal hospital, he was a large animal man. He spent most of his time out in the country. In the 30s we had our first great outbreak of Western encephalomyelitis in horses and Lewis and I spent day after day, in fact when we left the city on Monday morning we didn't know when we were going to get back. I slept in stalls out in the country on a few occasions and we'd be out on the road day and night, trying to nurse these horses infected with western encephalitis.
R Using ice packs?
J Oh yes, we went out with a big load of ice in the trunk of the car and empty 20 lb. sugar sacks and binder twine and instructed farmers how to build stocks to keep their horses up on their feet, how to put shades over them, how to feed them by hand. We'd strap a big bag full of ice on their heads and you could almost see the relief.
R You worked in Alberta, too?
J Yes, in the spring of 1934, Doc Savage said to me that financing was pretty tight on the College budget and he couldn't employ me - well, he just simply had to let me go. This upset me a great deal, of course. My Masters work was only half over and I enjoyed working at the University and he said, "Well just let me look around" and finally he got in touch with Dr. Watson who was head of the Animal Disease Research Institute at Ottawa and I guess they'd been close friends for many years. Watson had made a reputation for himself by elaborating a complement fixation test, out at a lab at Lethbridge, which would diagnose this condition of horses called "dourine". There was a lab out there on the ranch where the original case was that
was diagnosed by Watson, so they offered me a job at this lab and I eagerly went out there and I had a wonderful, long, productive summer working on a ranch, incidentally trying to learn to ride a horse and doing things in that lab which I did not do in the lab in Winnipeg and I took on doing things out there which they did not do. In the meantime, instead of generating their own electricity they got a line from a power plant, I think it was three miles away in a little coal-mining town called Coalhurst, and then we had to convert all the incubators from gas to electricity and that was all very, very interesting.
R You worked on pullorum, too, didn't you?
J Yes, that was in Winnipeg. The whole program had started. I don't know why the poultry industry sort of took off in the thirties, maybe it was the fact that they were able to design and manufacture big incubators and there were a few individuals in Winnipeg that decided they'd get into the poultry industry via commercial hatcheries. Of course they needed eggs and they contracted with farms to bring fertile eggs in and they would incubate them and then they'd have chicks for sale. I soon realized there was an awful trouble because a very high percentage of these chicks died from some disease. Well it didn't take long to discover that it was Salmonella pullorum that was knocking over some of these birds and that the disease was transmitted in the eggs from the hens. So we weren't in the forefront of the discovery of how this was done, but it was decided that in order to eliminate Salmonella pullorum from the chicks you'd have to test the hens from a blood sample, and keep only those that tested negative. Well that took an awful lot of organization, which we left to the poultry commissioner in the Department of Agriculture. He had started to try to improve the quality of the flocks of chickens laying hatching eggs, by a team of inspectors. Then we taught these teams of inspectors how to draw a blood sample from a chicken. We had boxes built that would hold 200 vials; we had sheets designed to record the source of the individual blood samples; we used numbered leg bands on each hen; it was a well set up system, and then we started to receive blood samples in the lab. That meant a great increase in personnel for washing blood tubes, washing test tubes, doing the tests - it was a little industry.
R Yes, it sounds like many thousands of birds were tested...
J Yes, and the numbers increased until at one time we had about 325,000 tests to do in a part of the year.
R You also had, I believe, the first outbreak of anthrax that occurred here in Manitoba. You mentioned Mungo Lewis - he was a veterinarian?
J Yes, he was a veterinarian. They were doing some work on the old Trans-Canada highway and the contractor set up his camp not too far from a place called West Hawk Lake and not too far from a place on the railway called Ingolf, I believe. After being there for a month or so, he lost a horse, and then he started to lose 2 or 3 horses, and then he shouted for a veterinarian and I guess he got in touch with Dr. Lewis. Dr. Lewis was a very thorough man and I don't think he'd ever seen a case of anthrax in his life, but he remembered his classes at the Veterinary College in St. Joseph, Missouri, pretty well
and he was close to our lab - he was always in the place with something or other. I remember one day we were still upstairs in the Horticultural Building, Doc Savage and I were in the small lab and Dr. Lewis appeared at the doorway and he said "Savage, I think I have anthrax". Dr. Savage just about stiffened. He said, "Mungo, you stay at that door and don't you move till I tell you to." Then there was a great flurry of unrolling newspapers on tables and very carefully handling these bloodied sealers of stuff that he had in the bloody carton and Dr. Savage said, "Now, Jay, you do exactly as I tell you. Don't do anything else. Don't lift a hand until I tell you to do so." Well, I'll tell you, that was an education in itself. Eventually we got hold of a guinea pig in a cage and there was bloody fluid oozing from a piece of a horse's spleen which you could hardly recognize and he aspirated that with a hypodermic syringe and injected this material into the belly of a guinea pig. I watched that poor creature die the next day. It died in 24 hours - quickly. We cultured the material too, and not only did we get a typical death in the guinea pig, not only did we get a positive spleen - that is, we found organisms and smears in the guinea pig's spleen - we also found organisms in the material from the original spleen and we cultured and isolated anthrax. Of course, we informed the Health of Animals Branch right away. They took over and then the Provincial Government, for some reason, wanted to get in on the act, and they got their men in - Animal Husbandry men - and they burned equipment right and left.
R You did quite a bit of work on brucellosis, too.
J Yes I've forgotten exactly what year. That was after I graduated and had been an Assistant Pathologist for some time. There was a good deal of propaganda, if you want it that way, about brucellosis and various veterinarians had done a lot of what you might call 'private testing' in farm herds for a long time. Then in due course Strain 19 appeared and ...
R That's the vaccine, is it?
J The vaccine to protect calves against brucellosis. Well the Vet Lab was put in charge of receiving the material, storing it at proper temperature, filling out orders and sending them out to veterinarians. On the other hand the certificates accompanying the vaccinations all went, not to us, but to the Animal Husbandry Branch - because they were in charge of handing out money, you see. They were the big boys - they were the ones that were being good fellows to the farmers, if I may say so. That is my private opinion.
Now of course that was only half of the scheme. You know all about the scheme later on when they thought that when they had vaccinated the whole generation or two generations of calves that they decided they'd drop vaccination as much as possible and go in and test for the presence of brucellosis and eliminate the reactors. Well, we did that too and we couldn't take it over officially. It was a scheme set up by the Health of Animals Branch. The possibility was that they'd either have to do a very cumbersome job in Manitoba; for instance they'd either have to collect their blood samples and ship them by train or by air or by bus or any way they could down to the lab at the Animal Disease Research Institute in Ottawa; and that would be a very laborious and unnecessary method of doing a test. I got the idea that if we
could get the Federal people to do their testing in our lab, despite the fact that it was small and crowded, that we could gain about two years before the Health or Animals Branch could set up a lab in Manitoba. I proposed this to my Deputy Minister and he said, "Well, do what you can", and I got in touch with Health of Animals and very shortly after that there was quite a crew of people in our lab that worked for the Health of Animals Branch and then the blood samples started to pour in.
R Getting back to OVC, what sort of social life did you have?
J I didn’t have much of a social life down there. I had a monkey on my back all the time. I had to do a lot of studying whenever I could get a chance – home study - the accommodation within our one little bedroom wasn't conducive to much studying. I studied over at the OAC, I studied at the Vet College and I studied with other people in their accommodation.
R I presume you were quite a bit older than the average student?
J Yes, I think there might have been one or two men in my year older than myself.
R Did you go through an initiation period?
J No, no. Because I went right into second year and all the people who went into second year that year of course are graduates of the Ag. College anyway, so they decided they wouldn't initiate us again.
R Getting into your private life a little bit, I know you are married to Dr. Anne Laidlaw and she was the Gold Medalist in the year 1944-45 and she was the first woman to practice Veterinary Medicine west of Toronto. Did Anne continue to practice in Manitoba here?
J Yes, she worked at the Anderson Animal Hospital, which is a Small Animals Hospital. On some rare occasions she took over for Dr. Anderson and went out to the stock yards...
R So she did some large animal work too?
J Well you might call it that. She vaccinated carloads of cattle with shipping fever vaccine and that's a story. After a while Anne had to stop practice because she ran herself ragged, and so she became a housewife.
R Did she practice in another Veterinary Clinic?
J Yes, eventually she went over to Sherbrook Animal Hospital and put in some time there working with Dr. Walter Giesbrecht, and his assistants, but it was a tough life in those days and when you went into a practice you were there – at least Anne was - evening hours every other day, weekends every other weekend, and by chance you'd be on call for the night almost every night and I wouldn't let Anne travel on her own at night in the car so I used to accompany her on night calls -1 might have sat out in the car or sat in the house and did nothing - but I wouldn't let her travel alone.
R It must have been a distinct advantage to be married to a Veterinarian when you could come home and discuss your veterinary problems...
J Oh yes, over meals. I would do autopsies and Anne would do treatments.
R I notice that you are a Life Member of the CVMA and of the MVMA. When were you made a Life Member of the CVMA?
J 1978 – at the national convention in Regina.
R You were at the first meeting of the CVMA in Winnipeg, in 1949, I believe...
J That's right. In 1949, a veterinarian by the name of Chamberlain and I pretty well organized that meeting as far as arranging the program, as far as registration was concerned, we were all very much amateurs and didn't know very much what we were doing, but we got it going.
R I think Dr. Savage participated too. That was the year of my graduation and I attended that meeting too.
J It was at the Fort Garry Hotel.
R Is there any other subject you'd like to cover, Jay?
J Well, I'd like to say that the course in Veterinary Medicine that was available in my day is just kindergarten to what they have available now. The people who are graduating now are scientists - applied scientists. I think it is wonderful! And I wish them all the luck in the world.
R I am sure most Veterinarians would agree with you on that. I want to thank you for this interview. It is most informative and interesting.