A globally respected University of Minnesota veterinarian and two other Minnesotans were killed in a traffic collision Tuesday in the Czech Republic, where they were traveling for an agricultural conference.

Robert Morrison, 64, a professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, died, along with Deb Spronk, 60, of Pipestone, Minn., and Pam Wetzell, 59, of Cleveland, Minn.

The three Minnesotans were traveling with spouses in a rented SUV that collided with a truck north of Prague Tuesday afternoon, the university and Czech authorities said. Police said investigators suspect that the SUV might have failed to yield the right of way. Police have not disclosed who was driving.

Morrison’s 63-year-old wife, Jeanie, was hospitalized in critical condition, her church said on social media.

Spronk’s husband, swine veterinary services provider Gordon Spronk, and Wetzell’s husband, Tom Wetzell, who works for the Germany-based animal health company Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, received minor injuries.

The Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis of Falcon Heights United Church of Christ said on Facebook Wednesday, “Jeanie has come out of surgery, having lost considerable blood and sustaining many broken bones. ... We are stunned to learn of this unexpected disaster, and our hearts are breaking.”

The Americans were traveling before attending a swine health management conference in Prague, according to the U’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Dr. Morrison was an international leader in the swine industry,” said Trevor Ames, dean of the college. “This is a tragic loss for the strong team of students and faculty that Bob helped us build.”

David Preisler, executive director of the Minnesota Pork Producers Association, said Morrison and the other veterinarians are well known in Minnesota and worldwide. “This is a very deep blow to the pork-producing community on a number of levels,” Preisler said. “Professionally and personally, all of them are fantastic people.”

Morrison was hired by the U in 1986 and was widely admired for his work to eradicate diseases infecting swine herds, Ames said. “He was a gifted researcher,” said Ames. Morrison helped create systems to track animal disease outbreaks, he said, and ensured researchers, veterinarians and the industry would “work together on solving the problem.”

Preisler said Morrison started the Swine Health Monitoring Project, which gives weekly reports on over 50 percent of the U.S. sow herds. That, he said, was “truly groundbreaking from the standpoint of improving animal health.”

Beth Thompson, a swine veterinarian and executive director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said Morrison was one of her professors and a professional colleague since then.

“He has contributed untold amounts of research to the swine industry,” she said.

Wetzell, formerly of Wells, Minn., was an “all-star grandma” who loved “life and travel and adventure,” said Jessica Phelps, a friend at Crossroads Church in Albert Lea. “There was no one like her,” said Phelps. “She just poured her life into caring for those around her.”

Wetzell was a leader in her church’s women’s ministry, and last month led a Christian women’s conference at Crossroads, said pastor Jeff Phelps. She also took part in an annual mission to Jamaica with her husband, who is chairman of the church board.

Spronk, who worked for Atlas for Life, a Christian mentoring program in Pipestone, also enjoyed helping others, said Ivan Vogel, the group’s vice president. She started volunteering 11 years ago, and recently had taken to refurbishing furniture to resell at the Atlas boutique, which helps support the nonprofit organization.

“Whether it was working with people and their lives, or old furniture, it was rebuilding she was good at,” said Vogel. “She kept growing in her faith, in her ability to help people.”

 

Staff writers Tom Meersman and Maura Lerner and the Associated Press contributed to this report.