Modest Plaque Commemorates Pioneer Veterinary Practice

by Evelyn Cheslak
published in 1963

A modest marble plaque in the reception room of the Park Pet Hospital reads "In memory of Dr. Bennett J. and Edith Porter, pioneers in Minnesota veterinary history."  It marks a family's singular dedication to this field of endeavor -- a veritable dynasty established by a self educated "horse doctor" more than 100 years ago and continued today by his highly trained grandson and two great grandsons.

Lively Profession

Dr. Porter bags 4 bobcatsEngaged in a lively profession at 4925 Highway 7 in St. Louis Park are two generations of Porters, Dr. Bennett J. Porter II, popularly known as Dr. Porter Sr. and his sons, Drs. Bennett J. III and Thayer Eugene, known as Dr. Ben and Dr. Gene.

The dynasty began with French Canadian Thomas Portier who brought his family here from Quebec in 1858, crossing the river at MacGregor to homestead with eight other families in Shell Rock township.

"Their log cabin still stands there," mused Dr. Porter, Sr. who visited the site recently, "although the family had moved on to Albert Lea."

"Grand-dad was an old horse doctor by 'preceptorship'," he reflected. "If you wanted to become one in those days you simply learned by association. Our profession looks down today on the term 'horse doctor' but it shouldn't, for to be a good horse doctor you really had to be good."

"Remuneration then was small, and grand-dad farmed and he raised stallions to supplement his income."

porter_cartoon_web"My father," he continued, "never did anything else but practice veterinary medicine. He graduated from Ontario Veterinary College, one of the very first in the North American continent, in 1906. He was no kid then, but a married man with a family. It was the year I was born, the youngest of nine children."

It is perhaps truly appropriate for Dr. Porter to dedicate the pet hospital to both his father and mother for Edith Adele Porter was a terrific plugger for veterinary medicine. She had no formal training other than that as the wife of a veterinarian she played a very important role as did a doctor's wife in those days. She helped to brew the concoctions, to roll the pills and she could diagnose and dispense when her husband was out on a call.

Widow And Children

"She was a widow with three children when she married my dad," said Dr. Porter. "He too was widowed and the father of three children. Both their spouses had been claimed by typhoid which raged at the time. They reared three children of their own as well."

Dystokia in the Sow 1/13/1909Dr. Porter recalls vividly his early impressions of the veterinarians as they met frequently at his father's home: "State meetings were held in small towns then (not in the Twin cities as they are today) simply because most veterinarians were in small towns. That's where the business was. I would listen to them talk by the hour. They were rough shod individuals but imbued with great honesty and integrity."

"It never occurred to me that I would be anything else but a veterinarian -- somehow it was always in the back of my mind -- but I didn't settle down to it all at once," he went on. He recalls that he left high school after only two years of schooling to engage in work, but it was always work with animals. After a four year lapse a sudden determination drove him back to high school which he completed in one year. His classmates were four and five years his juniors when he graduated in 1927.

"Not many went on to college in those days," he recalled. "I had trouble finding a college offering training for veterinarians." He entered Iowa state College that fall and fours years later emerged with a degree of Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. (Today it takes the equivalent of 7 to 8 years to attain the D.V.M. degree with a very minimum of six, two years of pre-veterinary studies and four years of veterinary school.

His college years were depression years. The bank with his life's savings had closed as did a host of others in those days but incredibly it was a blessing in disguise. More than 86 percent of his money was returned and fortuitously the dividends arrived quarterly" just in time to pay tuition and book fees."

A young Gene Porter mowing the lawn at Park Pet Hospital in 1949

Still In Grade School

"Dad had died when I was still in grade school," he said, "and mother joined forces with me. We ran a boarding house for 27 veterinary students. Sometimes I think she had more fun going to college than I did. She was an eager listener, an active participant in all our bull sessions. I think my dad too would have been very happy to know I went on in his field."

porter_home_webAfter his graduation, Dr. Porter practiced in Minnesota for a short time, in Vesta for two years, then back to Albert Lea where he purchased his father's old home, remodeled it, transforming half into an office and small animal hospital. Not being able to finance all of the improvement by outside help he did much of the work himself, working long into the night.

He came to the Park in 1948. "I had always wanted to get into small animal work and the proximity of the University was another factor," he commented. He bought land here only to discover he was sitting on top of old Bass Lake. Pilings 50 feet deep support the pet hospital! In 16 years he has seen a small community develop into a thriving city, a panorama of building complexes replacing open meadows. The three doctors "do practically everything" in their pet hospital. Today practice in the small animal business is analogous to human medicine; it's as clean and as aseptic but you're limited by your patients," said Dr. Porter.Highway Seven in St. Louis Park Minnesota is just a dirt road in 1949.

Years ago diagnosis was made purely on clinical examination with no laboratory work. Today vast amounts of lab work are done. "You have to be a little bit of everything, ophthalmologist, dermatologist, and surgeon," he remarked.

"Those old timers were pretty good when it came to observing," he reminisced. "When I think back, it is amazing what they could do with little or no equipment and no education. There was just a romance connected with it. You loved horses as a rule...."

Like their dad, it never occurred to Drs. Ben and Gene to be anything else but veterinarians. Both are graduates of the St. Louis Park high school, both attained their degrees in veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota.

Refresher Courses

All three attend refresher courses at the University whenever they are offered. An experience Dr. Porter, Sr. recalls with satisfaction is "going back to school" during 1956-57, this time to teach. Dr. Ralph Kitchell of the anatomy department of the veterinary school took a leave of absence at that time and Dr. Richard Palmer of Wayzata and Dr. Porter assisted in the teaching, drawing on their long and varied years of experience.Park Pet Hospital Temporary Building close to the open storm Sewer 1949

Park Pet Hospital after a heavy snow fall.One cannot escape the pride Dr. Porter feels in his profession, a pride he has developed in his sons. "Our profession is becoming more aware that we have to paint an image -- most of us are reluctant to tell people what we ca do. Patients do not look upon us as upon a physician. An animal life is not as important as a human life...but we couldn't do a better job if we were treating a human being.

"Veterinary medicine is important," he continued. "Without it there wouldn't be the food to feed our population. It never occurs to a man sitting down to his sirloin that it's the veterinary vigilance over livestock and meat inspection that made it possible." He recalled the part U.S. doctors of veterinary medicine played in stamping out the hoof and mouth disease in Mexico and that many were killed in the process by embittered Mexicans.Dr. Ben Porter Sr. is seated on the left.

Strong Feelings

Dr. Porter has strong feelings about the term "vet" to describe his profession: "I've no objection to 'horse doctor' but I do to 'vet' as an unsatisfactory name." Some figures confirm the validity of his objection. in a recent survey made at Michigan State College, which has a veterinary school, 65 percent of the students associated the term "vet" only with members of the armed forces.

Philosophizing about pets in general, Dr. Porter would put a dog in every home when a child turns six. "Children learn affection from an animal in a very special way," he said. "There's something about a pet -- it just does something to a kid." dr. Porter sees children bringing in their pets by the score "and there isn't a mean kid in the lot. The country's spending millions to combat delinquency but they are overlooking the simplest cure." Year round leashing? Dr. Porter sees the results in his practice: less fractures, and more sick dogs.

COtober 27th, 1948 Southwest Shopper and East Lake ShopperWill the dynasty continue? There's Dr. Porter's youngest son, Craig, 16 a student at West High who as yet has no plans. then, of course, there's Bennett J. Porter IV, six year old son of Dr. Ben.