Dr. Clyde Johnson works out a horse at Stoneleigh Burnam School in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
Courtesy photo
Dr. Clyde Johnson works out a horse at Stoneleigh Burnam School in Greenfield, Massachusetts.

A lifetime helping animals

Dummerston Historical Society hosts retired veterinarian Clyde Johnson on April 21

DUMMERSTON-Clyde Johnson, best known as a veterinarian who retired from the Vermont–New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic, says that, although he was born in Pennsylvania, he came into the world mysteriously as a Vermonter.

When asked how he came to live in the state, he shows his understated sense of humor by responding in sensible Vermont fashion.

"In a car," he says.

The Dummerston Historical Society has invited Johnson to speak on Sunday, April 21, at 2 p.m. about his years practicing veterinary medicine. He will also be bringing some of his extensive collection of antique medical equipment.

A Brattleboro Reformer article in 1995 laid out Johnson's personal history:

"Farming had been Johnson's first love when he was growing up in the small town of Lottsville, Penn., where he was born in 1937. His father died when Johnson was only 8, leaving the boy to find a surrogate father in a family friend. Johnson worked at the man's small dairy farm from the time he was 9. Consequently, becoming a farmer was what filled his young head."

Johnson told the newspaper, "I wanted to grow up and emulate that man. That's a normal thing to do with someone you love."

Johnson graduated from high school in 1955. Knowing that he wouldn't inherit the farm because his mentor had his own children, he saved $2,000 and enrolled as a pre-veterinary medicine student at Pennsylvania State University.

"It was a way to get close to animals," Johnson says.

Johnson attended Penn State and after three years was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School.

At the invitation of David Baldwin, Johnson came to Vermont in 1962.

"The Baldwin family and the Johnson family were all one family," says Johnson with a huge smile. The two doctors shared the practice.

"In rural areas you did everything, both small and large animals," says Johnson.

Eventually, he and Baldwin divided up their efforts, Baldwin treating small animals in the clinic, and Johnson taking on the cattle and horses.

But Johnson has many interests. He's been on the Dummerston Selectboard and has served on the school board as well. He also skis, hunts and fishes; makes a mean sourdough pancake; and shares his love of local history with the town.

He ran the Dummerston Town Meeting for years with "his strong voice and commanding presence," according to the Historical Society's press release for the event.

"Clyde's expertise led to work as the attending physician at the Hinsdale Standardbred track and at the six-horse hitches at the [Eastern States] Exposition," the news release continued. "Such experiences alone could fill a book, but there were other animals, too, including a chimpanzee, of which you may hear. If you don't, ask him."

Johnson also taught anatomy at Windham College when it was in Putney, and was a ski instructor when Maple Valley was open.

Johnson has traveled the world as a representative of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, the world's largest association for veterinary professionals dedicated to raising the standards in horse health. He's spent eight years as director of the organization, six years as treasurer and four years as director-at-large prior to becoming president.

But there is more.

Antique instruments tell the story of medicine

"Antique items interest me greatly. The older I get, the more it does because I myself am one," Johnson jokes, speaking about his collection.

Johnson was a Rotarian for many years. He and Dummerston resident Tom Johnson spearheaded what came to be a fundraiser for the Brattleboro Rotary Club and the Police Benefits Association. The annual Green Mountain Antique Arms and Gun Show in Brattleboro was the first of its kind in Vermont. Begun in 1980, the award-winning event was a high-quality gun show which brought exhibiters from as far away as Texas.

"We held this event for 20 years or so. Ours was truly an antique arms show. A lot of them were works of art. Some of the guys who collected antique guns also collected antique medical instruments," remembers Johnson.

A friend had given Johnson an antique bleeding instrument called a fleam, years before the antique gun show started up. They were widely used in the 17th and 18th centuries for bloodletting in both animals and humans.

"I began buying some medical instruments from one dealer there because I've always been interested in medical equipment," says Johnson, and adds with a deep laugh, "After a bit, the guy knew I was a sucker and made it a point to bring things he knew I'd be interested in."

His collection also includes antique glass syringes and needles. Johnson is very familiar with these, as he used glass syringes when he was in veterinary school and during the beginning of his career.

Johnson met up with another Dummerstonian, Chuck Fish, a member of the Historical Society, to ask him whether the society would like to house his collection. Fish suggested Johnson do a talk about them and tell some veterinarian stories at an event.

"There is a fascinating history around the use of fleams," Johnson says. "It's been discovered that men who donate blood have [fewer] heart attacks. Premenopausal women generally don't have heart attacks. Medically, it's thought that bleeding gets rid of some of the heavy metals in our body. The practice of using fleams to let blood stopped around the 1800s."

Johnson adds some historical perspective by noting that wars are terrible events that bring one bright spot: "Improvements in medicine is one of the few advantages of war. Civil War surgeons didn't even wash their hands while doing amputations, unaware that they carried diseases from one patient to the next," he says.

The Civil War brought advancements in facial reconstruction surgery, and the numbers of amputees led to improvements in prosthetics. World War II brought penicillin and streptomycin to treat bacterial infections.

"Before the Vietnam War, there weren't many plates and screws being used. If you had to do a procedure on a situation during war, physicians tried new techniques to try to save their patients. A lot of modern plating and screws came out of those situations in Vietnam, such that today patients often walk right off a surgical table," he says.

"All that knowledge has migrated down to animals. I was reading an article recently about a horse that broke his leg at the Preakness. Twenty-eight screws and bone plates put the breaks back together again. Twenty years ago, that horse would have been put down."

Another quote from another Reformer article, this one from 1968, might shed more light on his upcoming talk.

"It's hard for me to imagine a better occupation," he told columnist Marge Runnion.

"I love driving around the country to tend to a sick horse or a pregnant cow," Johnson told her. "I even like wrestling with a calf to get it vaccinated. And if there's 20 minutes to spare between calls, it's great to be able to stop and do a little fishing."

Johnson's talk will follow the quarterly meeting of the Dummerston Historical Society at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, at the organization's schoolhouse at 1521 Middle Rd. in Dummerston Center. The schoolhouse is accessible, and all are welcome. For more information, contact Muriel Taylor at 802-380-7525 or Gail Sorenson at [email protected].

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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