James Harlan Steele, pioneer veterinarian recognized as the “Father of Veterinary Public Health,” was born on April 3, 1913, in Chicago, Illinois, to James Hahn Steele and Lydia (Norquist) Steele. He was educated in the Chicago public school system and attended Hamilton Elementary School and Lakeview High School, where he graduated in 1930. Steele worked as an insurance clerk for several years before enrolling at Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (now Michigan State University) where he earned a doctor of veterinary medicine degree in 1941. Steele proceeded to earn a master of public health degree from Harvard University in 1942.
In 1938, while still a student at Michigan State, Steele worked on testing vaccinations for the Michigan State Department of Agriculture. His research focus involved the understanding of the bacterium Brucella melitensis and the manner whereby pathogens were transmitted from animals to humans, endangering human health. This initiative laid the foundation for Steele’s seventy-year career specializing on the intersection of veterinary medicine and public health.
On June 14, 1941, Steele married Aina Marie Oberg. They had three sons—Michael J. Steele, James H. Steele Jr., and David A.J. Steele. Following Aina’s death in 1969, Steele married Brigitte Marie (Meyer) Steele who survived him.
After working briefly as sanitarian in the Ohio State Health Department, Steele joined the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) at its Chicago regional office in 1943. As the commissioned sanitarian, he studied zoonotic threats on the Virgin Islands and in Puerto Rico. His dedication to studying disease threats to animals and humans compelled Steele to advocate to United States Surgeon General Thomas Parran and Assistant Surgeon General Joseph Mountin the creation of a Veterinary Medical Officer appointment within the USPHS. He eventually received appointment as the USPHS’s Chief Veterinary Officer in 1950 and held that title until 1968.
While employed at the USPHS, Steele worked closely with the Communicable Disease Center (later named the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC) to lead the way in veterinary public health. Beginning in 1945 he created a veterinary public health program. In 1947 he moved to Atlanta to set up the CDC’s Veterinary Public Health Division, the first federal program of its kind, and served as chief from 1947 to 1950.
During this period, Steele oversaw the development of the first effective rabies vaccine and eradication programs, which were successfully implemented during the outbreak in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1950 and in other cities throughout the United States. He also investigated other diseases including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, Q fever, psittacosis, salmonellosis, and many other food-borne diseases, and avian influenza. Impressed by these accomplishments, Dr. Alexander Langmuir, founder of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS), asked Steele to recruit other veterinarians to work in animal and non-animal disease epidemiologic areas within EIS. This endeavor launched the merger of veterinarian medicine with the public health sphere, which continues to the present day. Steele also established the American Veterinary Epidemiology Society (AVES) in 1964 to honor the efforts of veterinary epidemiologists in progressing veterinary medicine and public health.
From 1968 to 1971 Steele served as United States Assistant Surgeon General for Veterinary Affairs. He was the first veterinarian to achieve this rank (admiral, two stars). Upon his retirement from the USPHS in 1971, Steele was appointed professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, Texas, and became editor-in-chief of the CRC Handbook Series in Zoonoses (first published in 1979), the world’s first comprehensive series of books on zoonotic diseases. In 1983 Steele was appointed professor emeritus, a position he held until his death in 2013. During his professional career, Steele served as a consultant for a number of national and international bodies, including the Pan American Health Organization (beginning in 1945), World Health Organization (beginning in 1950), Commission on Consumer Affairs (1969–89), and the White House Office of Science and Health Planning (2000–13), as well as the World Bank, U. S. Agency for International Development, and others.
Steele earned numerous national and international awards, including the U.S. Public Health Service Meritorious Service Medal (1963), American Public Health Association’s Bronfman Prize (1971), Presidential Award of the Pan American Veterinary Congress (1988), Presidential Award of the American College of Veterinary Preventative Medicine (1994), Surgeon General’s Medallion (2006), Pan American Health and Education Foundation’s Abraham Horwitz Award for Leadership in International Health (2006), and many others, including the World Veterinary Association’s John Gamgee Award (2013) just months before his death.
Steele held many professional memberships during his lifetime. In 1950 he founded the American Board of Veterinary Public Health. In 1971 he founded the World Veterinary Epidemiology Society, which established the James H. Steele Award in his honor in 1975; Steele served as the society’s president through 1985. Other memberships include the New York Academy of Science, United Nations Association of America, Infectious Disease Society, Texas Public Health Association, and Texas Veterinary Medical Association. Steele’s legacy is celebrated through the University of Texas School of Public Health’s annual James H. Steele Lecture series, established in 1993; the James H. Steele, D.V.M. Professorship at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston; and the James H. Steele Veterinary Public Health Award sponsored by the CDC.
James Harlan Steele died on November 10, 2013, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He was buried in Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs, Georgia.