OSU alumnus and ‘vegetinarian’ named Oklahoma Veterinarian of the Year
Friday, March 10, 2023
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Dr. Billy Clay was named the 2023 Veterinarian of the Year by the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association.
The recipient of numerous awards over the course of his career, the recognition from his peers made this award special to him.
“It means a lot to be a veterinarian that is recognized by my peers — that acknowledges value to the profession,” Clay said. “Enough value to say we'd like to pat you on the back and that is really rewarding.”
Clay, a 1970 graduate of the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, didn't take the traditional route of veterinary medicine, but instead carved his own path by combining his passion of agronomy with veterinary medicine. His specialized expertise made him a highly sought-after and one-of-a-kind consultant or, a ‘vegetinarian,’ as his classmates call him.
Clay was born and raised on a farm in eastern Oklahoma. He was exposed to agriculture of all kinds growing up, as his parents were first sharecroppers and later worked on a farm and ranch operation. Coming from humble roots, he had no plans to attend college because of his lack of money. But despite Clay’s financial concerns, one man was insistent that he attend college — his high school vocational agriculture instructor, Marvin Jones.
“When I graduated from high school, Marvin took me to OSU and we met a guy in the agronomy department whose name was Frank Davies,” Clay said. “He introduced me and, to my shock, the next thing out of his mouth was, ‘This is the kid I was telling you about and now he's yours.'”
Clay enrolled in the agronomy program and paid for school by working for Davies. During his junior year, on a suggestion from Davies, Clay decided to pursue a master’s degree. There was only one problem — Clay still had a year left and an undergraduate and the current graduate student was graduating, leaving a gap in the program. Davies soon solved this problem by having Clay teach a laboratory during his senior year.
“He brought me on as his senior assistant to teach the laboratory,” Clay said. “So, I started teaching when I was a senior, then I moved into his master’s program. At the end of my master’s program, I decided I wasn’t going to pursue a Ph.D. so I submitted my application to veterinary school.”
Two weeks after Clay applied to veterinary school at OSU, a draft notice letter came. He called the veterinary school, explained what had happened and sent a copy of his draft notice for his file — or so he thought. Shortly before he was to report for his physical exam, another letter came from the Draft Board. He was granted a health sciences deferment to attend veterinary school.
Shocked and excited, he went through the admittance process and was accepted. Clay later learned it was then Dean Glenn C. Holm he had to thank for this. After seeing his draft letter and reviewing his application, Holm made the decision to unilaterally accept Clay and subsequently alerted the draft board.
So, Clay began veterinary school, but it wasn’t long before his background in agronomy and experience in teaching as a graduate student landed him on the faculty’s radar — particularly Dr. Duane R. Peterson, Regents Service professor.
“Duane came to me about the middle of my freshman year and said, ‘If you are interested and willing, we can work out something where you can be a part of the instruction here,’” Clay said. “There were two courses designed for the purpose of helping students understand the diet of large animals: veterinary agronomics and medicinal and poisonous plants.
“He’d recognized that I’d already been teaching a similar version of veterinary agronomics for the last five semesters, so he thought I probably could just pick up and take off, which I did.”
For the duration of his time in veterinary school, Clay was both a student and an instructor. During the semester, he would teach two courses while also taking courses of his own. In the summer, he would take the parts of the courses that teaching pulled him from during the semester. Before long, Clay also added freshman anatomy to his teaching load.
At the time of graduation in 1970, thanks to his teaching and other courses, Clay had about 50 hours toward a Ph.D. He was hired as an assistant professor with the plan to complete the degree. That arrangement didn’t last long, however, as others were learning of his specialized knowledge. He had caught the eye of an Oklahoma agriculture experiment station director who was facing an issue, requiring the assistance of someone with expertise in both animals and plants.
“They had an issue with cattle on wheat pasture,” Clay said. “It was something that had developed over a short period of time because a lot of people started owning cattle that really weren't cattlemen, they were wheat growers who decided they'd take advantage of the pastures.”
“So, they put a lot of cattle on the pastures that subsequently began having major health issues. One of the men who was in charge of planning research projects for the Ag Experiment Station was a former agronomist who knew me and asked if I’d be interested in studying this problem, so I said of course. And that changed everything in my professional life once again.”
Clay split his time between the Agricultural Experiment Station and the College of Veterinary Medicine for three years as he worked to gather data and sort out the issues at hand.
“I got excited about combining the two fields because that's what I was essentially doing in this research project,” Clay said. “I realized that this effort was to differentiate a toxic cause from all other possibilities.”
Clay then sought to become a toxicologist. The guidelines for board certification required candidates to be a resident mentored by a boarded toxicologist. At the time, OSU did not have a toxicology program, but luckily, they had Dr. Bill Edwards. Edwards was a professor with the college who happened to be pursuing board certification in toxicology. Once he became boarded as a veterinary toxicologist, Clay approached him and became his first resident.
Together, Clay and Edwards built a program tailored to the Board of Veterinary Toxicology requirements and in 1975, Clay became a board-certified veterinary toxicologist. He continued to teach and conduct research, but as word spread further of his expertise, case requests began to roll in.
“As a resident and faculty member, I had already participated in several cases that had arisen requiring application of what I knew,” he said. “One of them was right here in Stillwater: Swan Hose Factory. It was a hose manufacturing facility that produced garden hoses as well as hoses for automobiles and other equipment.”
The company created a lead cast in which three or more layers of materials were placed to make the hoses. The cast was then salvaged into a smelting pot to remelt it for other casts. According to EPA guidance, the company changed its smokestack so that the smoke would go up and away so exposure to employees was minimized. Unfortunately, this created a toxic environment where lead was wind-disseminated for about two miles away from the plant.
“This issue was first identified in horses that became ill, so Bill Edwards and I were called into diagnose why,” Clay said. “We realized that there was lead on the vegetation that these horses were eating, so then the big question was, where did it come from? And of course, this wasn't difficult to figure out.
“I spent a lot of time gathering data to prove to the business what had happened. That data was presented to the Lead Industries Association, a consortium of all the commercial companies that deal with lead. My job was to convince them of the nature of the issue at hand and offer a method of correcting it.”
Using his agronomic knowledge, Clay developed a plan to alleviate the issue. The plan was to first remove the vegetation where feasible, burn what was left and then adjust the soil’s pH to prevent the lead from being taken up by the roots of plants. With this problem solved and the case closed, Clay had officially become the foremost expert on issues that required agronomic and veterinary knowledge.
Clay began to accept more cases as time allowed, mostly from the oil and gas industry as it grew rapidly in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But as more cases came, the more stretched he felt, trying to balance consulting and teaching.
“It showed me that there's an entire business here, a big business if I want to assume it,” Clay said. “I was ready to do it — that is, become a private consultant.”
But, like many of Clay’s plans, they were altered by an opportunity that was too good to pass up. A pharmaceutical company that had been involved in research with cattle approached him about joining its research team. While Clay was intrigued by the offer, he did not want to dampen his blooming consulting business. The company understood his concern and allowed him to continue consulting while helping them develop cattle pharmaceuticals.
“I became a research and development and technical support person for the Upjohn company in 1977 and continued to do my consulting work with their blessing,” Clay said. “I would set up research trials all over the country to gather data for a targeted pharmaceutical. We developed five really important products and other minor ones, most of which are still in existence and being used today.”
One product example was Lutalyse. It changed the way cattle are managed by controlling the reproduction process of females, which allowed for programmed breeding. In addition to the research, Clay also wrote the technical manual for Lutalyse. Other notable products were MGA, Naxcel and Excede.
Clay continued to work for the Upjohn company while also consulting and intermittently teaching as an adjunct professor for the veterinary college. During this time, he developed an interest in organized veterinary medicine and became more active in the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association; he soon assumed the role of legislative committee chairman. In that role, Clay acted as a liaison between the OVMA and state government, informing OVMA of any issues that came before the state legislature that impacted veterinary medicine.
In 2003, the Upjohn company was acquired by Pfizer. Clay stayed on for one more year to assist with the transition and left the company in 2004.
He continued his work with the OVMA, becoming an officer and ultimately serving as president. Over the course of 10 years, Clay was involved in many matters pertaining to veterinary medicine, animal agriculture and animal welfare. He learned to write legislation, communicate with legislators and lobbyists and affect positive change in veterinary medicine and society.
Impressed by all he had done as part of the OVMA, director Chuck Helwig encouraged Clay to participate on the national level. He was selected to be a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine. He also served on the Animal Agriculture Liaison and Environmental Management Committees.
“So here I am, diversely involved in organized veterinary medicine at the national level and that ballooned into all kinds of opportunities,” Clay said. “The AVMA needed a representative to the EPA and I was selected as that person. They needed someone to be on the World Health Organization for Animals and I was selected to serve on that as well.”
Along with his commitment to the OVMA, Clay continued to consult, becoming involved in many cases pertaining to litigation and patent infringement and working for all kinds of people and industries. All and all, Clay served as an expert witness in more than 63 court proceedings.
Of Clay’s many contributions, he is quite proud of his work with a program called Spay First, a nonprofit organization led by Ruth Steinberger. The program aims to control the population of feral animals.
“She had a concept of developing a research program where we could control the estrous of the female dog and cat,” Clay said. “She approached me because of my demonstrated interest in animal welfare along with the knowledge that I had some experience in animal birth control. I told her about what I helped develop for cattle that controlled the estrous cycle of heifers in the feedlot.”
Knowing there was a similar compound that could potentially work in dogs and cats, the pair set out to learn more. They soon found literature confirming Clay’s thoughts as it pertained to cats.
“She wanted to build a program where there could be research and development for that purpose — the idea of controlling feral animals, not necessarily in this country, but worldwide,” Clay said. “The approach was to help solve one of the biggest issues in many countries, which is feral rabid dogs. Rabies is a major killer of humans in those countries.”
For the past 10 years, that has been Clay’s main cause. Partnering with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other entities, the research has expanded to controlling other feral populations, including feral horses. He was even awarded the James Kraft Honorary Achievement Award for his service to animal welfare.
As Clay reflects on his career, he encourages students to explore veterinary medicine and wants them to know that becoming a veterinarian can lead to so much more than just animal care.
“Since there are no other ‘vegetinarians’ that I know of, I would advise them to look at that opportunity,” Clay said. “Not only is that an opportunity but there are many, many other opportunities in veterinary medicine for veterinarians to do things other than just day-to-day animal care. If you have other proclivities of interest or enthusiasm about other things, you can develop that in veterinary medicine.”
From humble beginnings to being the top expert in a profession he loves, Clay has certainly made a name for himself in a field that he invented. His impact is felt by many, as evidenced by the many letters of support for his nomination for Veterinarian of the Year.
Clay was nominated by longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Charles A. Helwig, who presented a long list of supporting materials outlining Clay’s contributions and highlighting his leadership abilities.
“Dr. Clay has made significant contributions to his community, veterinary medicine, education and research,” Helwig said. “Seldom have I run across an individual who has unselfishly served the veterinary profession with such energy, enthusiasm and expertise.”