Dr. Vaughn Seaton led the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University from 1964 to 1994, succeeding Dr. Paul C. Bennett who retired after 17 years of supervising the lab. Dr. E. A. Benbrook served as the laboratory’s first supervisor when it was officially established in the College of Veterinary Medicine* on July 1, 1946.
The Early Years (60s-80s)
During those early years when Seaton first became director, the laboratory primarily conducted post-mortem, histopathology, bacteriology and limited serological examinations. “I look back and think how inadequate we were,” Seaton says. “All we had was a post-mortem knife, a microscope, centrifuge, some test tubes and petri dishes. We didn’t have a bacteriologist; we did our own.”
The physical facilities were grossly inadequate. They consisted of four small rooms in the northeast corner of the basement of the Veterinary Quadrangle. One room was for post-mortems with two tables. There was a media-making and sterilization room, along with a room for the supervisor of the laboratory and a half-time secretary shared with another department, and one small room with three desks for two graduate students and one faculty member.
Another major deficiency was lack of incinerator facilities for carcass and tissue disposal. This material was removed from laboratories by hand-in barrels and hauled away and disposed of in a landfill.
They may have started small, but the staff quickly began to build the strong foundation that would become today’s full-service, world-class laboratory.
“We needed to expand. Feed additives were new so the demand for services related to toxicology were increasing. I hired a toxicologist. That became our first section in the VDL,” Seaton said.
Soon, Seaton added another section to the laboratory – virology. One of the accomplishments of the VDL during the early years of his tenure was virus isolation and identification which would be instrumental in the future of the lab.
The next section Seaton added was bacteriology, with the addition of a microbiologist.
When the Iowa legislature authorized the Racing Commission to conduct Dog and Horse Racing in the ’80s, this demanded drug and chemical testing of racing animals. A section of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory was
set aside to conduct such tests.
The racing laboratory became very successful, providing racing chemistry to not only Iowa but also Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico full time, and part time to Connecticut, California, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Iditarod in Alaska. Iowa was recognized for excellence in drug testing and was asked to provide proficiency testing for other racing laboratories in other states.
In 1964, the number of cases in the VDL was 5,402. In 1974, it was 11,301. It would grow to 30,584 (1984) and 45,985 (1994). But those are only the number of cases, and each case may include several specimens or live animals. Thus, these cases represent thousands of specimens, and subsequent tests and reports. But results mean nothing unless they reach the practitioner in a timely manner.
“Our turnaround for tests was around three to four days,” Seaton said. “The pathologist would write a report, the secretary would type it, and the practitioner got the report in a week.”
Sometimes the Iowa Highway Patrol became part of the submissions process. “I remember getting a call from an elderly woman who had reached into her closet and was bit by a mouse,” Seaton said. “She was so worried that the mouse may have rabies and wanted it tested. She lived in northern Iowa and couldn’t get the mouse to Ames. Back in those days, actually up until the ’70s, the Iowa Highway Patrol would help out, and serve as a courier in these cases of public health. The end of the story is that the mouse arrived, and tested rabies-free.”
“Back then, the practitioner delivered the specimens or live animals to the VDL, and often, stood with us while we did the post-mortem,” Seaton said. “We learned a lot, and the practitioner often picked up information, also. It’s not possible to do that now with the volume the lab has.”
What makes a good pathologist? A good pathologist, says Seaton, “Talks little, looks a lot.”
Seaton tells the story about post-mortem pathology when he first came to ISU in 1954. One of the pathologists told him: “The pig is trying to tell you a story. It’s like reading a book. You’ve got to read it, understand it, get the meaning out of it.”
When Seaton took over the lab in 1964, he was allocated $11,000 to run the VDL. Travel, equipment, and supplies came from the budget. Salaries were paid through another administrative line. The VDL didn’t start charging fees, though, until 1976. “We were concerned that if we charged, practitioners wouldn’t get animals tested. That proved to be wrong,” Seaton said.
In 1976, the VDL started charging $5 for each case in Iowa. “After several arguments over whether a case was from Iowa or not, we decided to replace the $5 straight fee with a fee schedule, and that’s been the practice since.”
Today the VDL’s budget is over $25 million between state appropriations and fees.
When Seaton joined the faculty in 1954, the college’s main building was the Veterinary Quadrangle and the newest addition was the Stange Memorial Clinic built in 1938. The diagnostic laboratory had grown from a few rooms in the basement of the building. Soon after Seaton’s arrival, the diagnostic lab had moved to its own building built onto the north side of the Quadrangle in July 1956. The VDL building also housed the departments of hygiene, veterinary pathology and parasitology; and the library.
The increase in cases and numbers of specimens has caused the VDL to feel the pinch for space. After remodels and renovations to find more space, it embarked on securing a new lab for the future.
In 1967, a building committee was appointed and the heads of the departments were members of it, with Dr. Frank Ramsey as its chair. When construction was completed in 1976, the diagnostic laboratory wing of the college building consisted of
two floors. The post-mortem room and associated labs were on the first floor; offices and additional labs were on the second floor.
With the constant challenges that faced the VDL, from new technologies, new analytical techniques, to fiscal responsibility and tight budgets, the most important job Seaton had was hiring the best people. “What I feel most proud about is the people that I hired. They were all important to me, and many have had a tremendous impact on our profession. I remember hiring a virologist who became dean and a young pathologist who one day became interim dean of the college,” Seaton smiles.
A Do Over?
Asked if he'd rather have been director back in the years he was, or now, “Now!” Seaton said. “It’s wonderful what they are doing today. The VDL receives 85,000 cases a year, and the turnaround for tests is much shorter. That would have been unimaginable to me back in the 1960s. The science has progressed so far, so fast. The technology has advanced so much and the sophisticated equipment is remarkable. It’s the best diagnostic lab in the country.”
*The college was officially the Division of Veterinary Medicine at that time.