Obituary: R.K. Anderson was 'gentle giant' in animal medicine

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 12:58 PM

R.K. Anderson's innovations and inventions made the world better for both animals and people, say those who knew him.

Dr. Robert K. (R.K.) Anderson, passed away October 18, 2012, at the age of 90.

Veterinarian Robert K. Anderson had witnessed hundreds of dogs straining and coughing against choke collars when he had a simple, brilliant idea.

"I had a background in cattle and horses, and we didn't use choke chains on horses and cattle, but we did use halters. So I said, 'Why can't we use halters on dogs?'" Anderson said in an interview years later. "I was jeered and laughed at as I was ... when I used food to motivate dogs."

In the mid-1980s, he and dog trainer Ruth Foster used his insight to invent the Gentle Leader head collar for dogs, now enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution as one of the world's 100 best inventions, according to a biography provided by the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine, which called Anderson "a gentle giant in the world of veterinary medicine." He also co-invented the Easy Walk harness for dogs.

Anderson, a professor emeritus in veterinary public health at the U whose innovations and inventions in the field of animal behavior went well beyond those items, died Oct. 18 at his Falcon Heights home. He was 90, and had been healthy and active until recently, friends and colleagues said.

"He was the founder of animal behavior medicine, and his work touched on so many areas of the veterinary world," said Bill Venne, chief development officer for the College of Veterinary Medicine. "He helped us to understand animal emotions."

Anderson was born in Boulder, Colo., and spent much of his childhood on a dairy farm near Fort Collins in that state. In 1944, he graduated from the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. He had planned to work with dairy cattle, but wartime service in the Navy trained him in epidemiology and public health work. After the war, he became director of the veterinary public health program at Denver's Department of Health and Hospitals. In 1950, he received a master's degree in public health from the University of Michigan, then returned to Denver to direct its animal control effort during a rabies outbreak.

In 1954, he came to the University of Minnesota, whose College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health jointly developed a program in veterinary public health. He became its first director, a position he held until 1986.

In that role, he did research and taught veterinary and public health students about food safety, epidemiology and zoonotic diseases (those that can be transmitted from animals to humans). He also did work to help distinguish between antibodies formed as a result of exposure to vaccines and infection antibodies, which allowed vets to tell the difference between vaccinated and infected animals.

Along with Dr. Stan Diesch, Anderson helped found the Delta Society, an organization that enlisted the help of therapy, service and companion animals to improve human health; it later moved in Washington state. Anderson then co-founded the Center to Study Human Animal Relationships and Environments (CENSHARE) through the U. It was during this time that he and Foster developed the Gentle Leader collar, which after initial skepticism was patented by the U.

Diesch, a professor emeritus at the U, was a colleague and friend of Anderson over five decades and helped him build the U's programs in veterinary work and public health.

"He was a national, even international, figure in his field," Diesch said. "He was so good at originating new concepts, and also just a very interesting person to work with."

Venne said that another of Anderson's accomplishments was elevating the status of veterinary technicians to something akin to nurses in human health via training and certification.

Over his lifetime, Anderson received scores of awards, including several from groups fighting cruelty to animals.

"He was so inquisitive, and remained so right up till his death," Venne said. "Even at 90, he was the first person to get any new Apple product when it came out."

Marlys Giesecke, his companion of the past few years, said Anderson loved animals and had owned many pets, most recently "a cat named Happy, a very peppy cat he said made him happy."

"He was a very outgoing, intelligent, cultured person," she said, adding that he loved Gophers football, travel and reading, most recently the biography of President John Adams.

In addition to Giesecke, Anderson is survived by three sons, Richard of Hot Springs, Ark., Mark of Sandy, Ore., and Eric of Maplewood. His wife, Winifred, died in 2004.

A public service will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Student Center Ballroom on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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