EHRF renamed to honour first research fellow
A chance conversation with Dr. Hugh Townsend outside the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) led Dr. Joe Bracamonte to focus his career on equine health.
“He changed my career in the parking lot, just with a conversation,” says Bracamonte, an associate professor at the WCVM who specializes in large animal surgery.
Stories like this abound: Townsend has a gift for inspiring people to pursue equine-focused veterinary medicine. In addition, he has left a lasting legacy in the fields of equine internal medicine, infectious disease and vaccinology as well as a legion of researchers who have been inspired by him.
“I certainly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” says Dr. James Carmalt, a professor of equine surgery and an equine surgical specialist at the WCVM’s Veterinary Medical Centre. Carmalt came to the WCVM as a clinical intern and Townsend helped guide him into a residency.
“He directed me and changed my whole career,” says Carmalt, who came from Cambridge, England, to study at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) and was the first Equine Health Research Fund (EHRF)-sponsored graduate student to undertake a residency in equine practice at the WCVM.
Carmalt is now chair of the EHRF — the WCVM’s equine-focused fund that has supported horse health research, specialized training and public education since its creation in 1977.
In honour of Townsend’s many contributions to the college and his longtime dedication to the EHRF, the charity has a new name — the Townsend Equine Health Research Fund.
The decision wasn’t made lightly, says Dr. Baljit Singh, associate dean of research at the WCVM. He commends Townsend for his work in support of the fund that has been “critical in creating the large number of current equine research leaders across North America.”
“For nearly 40 years, he has contributed significantly to the sustainability of the fund, the management of the resources of the fund, and he has himself contributed immensely to equine research and training programs,” says Singh.
Organizers announced the fund’s name change on Oct. 30 during a dinner at the U of S campus. Special guests included members of Townsend’s family and scientists who have collaborated with him on equine health research initiatives.
“I think it will keep his spirit around,” says Bracamonte.
Before his recent retirement, Townsend held positions as a research scientist and program manager at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), as an adjunct professor in the Royal University Hospital’s Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, was a founding and joint member of the faculty of the School of Public Health, as an infectious disease and veterinary internal medicine specialist at the WCVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and as co-leader of the university’s One Health Initiative.
His distinguished career includes more than 120 publications and roles as the editor of Horse Health Lines and associate editor (experimental design and statistics) of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
“He has made such a huge impact on individual lives and the entire college throughout his career,” says WCVM Dean Dr. Douglas Freeman, reflecting on Townsend’s legacy at the college. “His daily presence will be missed.”
Originally from Calgary, Alta., Townsend began his veterinary career in 1973 when he graduated from the WCVM. After graduation he travelled to New Zealand and Australia, where he hoped to focus on food-animal medicine.
In 1976, it was a late-night phone call from Dr. Ole Nielsen, then dean of the WCVM, that prompted Townsend’s return to the Prairies. Nielsen wanted him to serve as the first fellow of a new research fund called the Equine Health Research Fund. It would be established to support equine research for which there were no existing sources of funding.
While the WCVM had modern facilities and people ready to start working on equine research, they didn’t have the money for it, says Townsend. The fund required a “fairly modest” amount of capital so the college could start focusing research efforts on the horse.
This became possible thanks to Townsend who counted on some personal connections to garner support. One of those was his father, the senior orthopedic surgeon in the city of Calgary, who connected the college with horsemen in Alberta who would financially support the idea.
“He opened up a lot of doors for us,” says Townsend.
Another vital connection was Townsend’s brother, who helped to connect the college with members of the Calgary and Edmonton business communities. This, explains Townsend, is why the fund will now carry his family name.
“A number of my family were involved, and are still involved with supporting the fund. The idea that it could acknowledge the family — I was more comfortable with that idea,” he says. “It’s a huge honour.”
Townsend completed his EHRF research fellowship in 1979 and joined the WCVM. Since then the EHRF has supported nearly 50 research fellows over the past four decades.
“All these big names have come through under [Townsend’s] tutelage and have gone on and had incredible careers. They may have had them without him, but I highly doubt it,” says Carmalt.
Much of the research supported by the EHRF became building blocks for modern equine medicine, including the cause and correction of angular lameness deformities in foals, nutritional requirements, biomechanics of the horses’ spine, breeding practices, surgical management of joint disease, vaccine efficacy and respiratory diseases as well as lung inflammation and wound healing.
“Those things put WCVM on the map,” says Townsend. “As a result of the fund, we’ve got young people from the college speaking at major international meetings and having a tremendous impact.”
More importantly, says Townsend, it’s the impact the college has had in training equine specialists as well as developing veterinarians with a strong background in equine health.
“My feeling was, the most important aspect of the fund was the people: the education, the learning, the desire to make things better for the horse and the horse industry,” says Townsend.
For more information about the Townsend Equine Health Research Fund, visit tehrf.ca.