Inside Hixson-Lied Small Animal Hospital stands a tall terra cotta statue of a veterinarian holding an injured puppy in large hands while the mother dog nuzzles his right leg.
“The Gentle Doctor,” made by sculptor Christian Petersen 1937, is one of the most prominently displayed pieces of campus art at Iowa State’s College of Veterinary Medicine building. Its name can be found on the Gentle Doctor Cafe at Vet Med and on the cover of the college’s magazine publication.
Lea DeLong, guest curator at Iowa State, said Petersen was hired under the then Iowa State President Raymond M. Hughes by artist Grant Wood during the Great Depression.
Petersen was hired to bring an art component to the education of students in science and technology, DeLong said.
“Hughes felt it was very important in their education that they have the input of art and artists,” DeLong said. “Iowa State University now has the largest public art on-campus collection in the United States.”
DeLong said that following the completion of work on campus like “History of Dairying Mural,” 1934, now found in the Food Sciences courtyard, Petersen began receiving commissions from Vet Med Dean Charles H. Stange. He received commissions for various projects, including the “The Veterinary Medicine Mural,” 1935-1938, and “The Gentle Doctor.”
“Ideally, [Petersen] would’ve loved to cast ['The Gentle Doctor'] in bronze, but that’s terribly expensive, and of course with the Great Depression it wasn’t an option,” Delong said. “Working with the ceramic engineering department, he developed a way of using terra cotta and casting terra cotta — in portions, in increments — to make ‘The Gentle Doctor.’”
DeLong said you can see the seams of where the different pieces of terra cotta were joined together to create the final statue.
“This sculpture was never intended to be seen just on its own,” DeLong said.
DeLong said the sculpture was originally placed in front of “The Veterinary Medicine Mural.” A replica of “The Gentle Doctor” currently stands outside with “The Veterinary Medicine Mural” in place of the original.
“If you see [“The Veterinary Medicine Mural”], you see [...] veterinarians engaged very actively in working with animals and exerting strength and their control over animals,” DeLong said. “For example, they’re obtaining body fluids from the animals, they’re conducting surgeries on the animals or they’re injecting animals.”
DeLong said Petersen conveyed the purpose of “The Veterinary Medicine Mural” was to highlight veterinary medicine as a science that can be used to benefit human health.
DeLong said she believes at some point Petersen decided to add to the mural and convey a different perspective of Veterinary Medicine. This addition became “The Gentle Doctor.”
“[‘The Veterinary Medicine Mural’] in the background shows veterinarians being very rigorous in their pursuit of scientific knowledge,” DeLong said. “But ‘The Gentle Doctor’ shows the everyday, compassionate veterinarian who is sensitive to the feelings of animals.”
David Gieseke is a communications manager in the veterinary medicine administration department and an editor for the Gentle Doctor magazine. Gieseke uses the campaign #GentleDoctorsEverywhere to connect veterinary medicine alumni from around the world.
“We do a lot of things with ‘The Gentle Doctor,’” Gieseke said. “Mainly because it is a symbol, not only of our college, but of veterinary medicine.”
Gieseke said “The Gentle Doctor” name is sometimes used by alumni to name their clinics, and the college’s Stange Award recipients are given a small replica of the statue.
Former Senator John Melcher of Montana had one of these statues, and Gieseke said his discovery of the senator’s Iowa State University Vet Med alum status helped give him the idea for the ‘Gentle Doctors Everywhere’ feature.
“We were getting these stories, and we didn’t know what to do with them,” Gieseke said. “[Melcher] was the first veterinarian elected to the U.S. Senate. He was one of our grads.”
Gieseke said he sets Google alerts for keywords such as Iowa State and Vet Med to track when an alum enters the news, and when he travels he is always searching for nearby alumni to tell their stories in the Gentle Doctor magazine.
“‘Gentle Doctors Everywhere’ comes from the Iowa State Alumni Association [that] does ‘Cyclones Everywhere,’ and so we just sort of took that philosophy and [...] focused it on us,” Gieseke said. “Instead of doing ‘Veterinarians Everywhere,’ we chose ‘Gentle Doctors Everywhere.’ [...] It flowed.”
Iowa State’s Vet Med website reports 6,696 living alumni of the college. For comparison, Iowa State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences website reports their alumni as a total of 46,000.
“Everybody knows everybody, and they’re all in the same profession,” Gieseke said.
Gieseke said he met a graduate from Saratoga, New York, who currently works with racing horses.
“He’s the head veterinarian for the New York Horse Racing Association,” Gieseke said. “I actually met him in Saratoga, which is one of the oldest race tracks in the United States. He’s the lead veterinarian, and he’s one of our graduates.”
Gieseke said he has also written about an alum who worked with geologists and helped discover white-nose syndrome in bats. Gieseke said another alum he met worked as a television correspondent for shows like “Fox and Friends” and “The Martha Stewart Show.”
The stories found in the Gentle Doctor magazine are not limited to the United States.
Gieseke said a member of Iowa State’s Vet Med had an internship in Australia and informed Gieseke of two Iowa State Vet Med alums: Ben and Erica Schmidt.
Gieseke said Ben Schmidt and Erica Schmidt were working with cattle in Australia and participating in work with an animal clinic.
“We’re finding every little thing that we can,” Gieseke said. “I have this whole list of people [...] who’ve interested me in some way.”
Geiske said he is already attempting to make plans to meet with a Vet Med alum who is active on social media this winter.