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How a German-born woman became Missouri’s first practicing female veterinarian

Dr. Suzanne Saueressig holding an animal at the
Humane Society of Missouri
Dr. Suzanne Saueressig holding an animal at the Humane Society of Missouri in 1955.

Dr. Suzanne Saueressig always knew she would be a veterinarian even though many people looked down on her for being ambitious. The German-born doctor would go on to transform veterinary medicine in the St. Louis region for more than 50 years.

For many years, she worked to stabilize an understaffed and ill-equipped Humane Society of Missouri as the region experienced a surge in its pet population. Saueressig faced resistance from her colleagues in what was a male-dominated field. Eleven years after her death, her legacy remains.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Marissanne Lewis-Thompson spoke with Andy Primm, a museum educator at the Missouri History Museum, about Saueressig and how she became the state’s first practicing female veterinarian.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Marissanne Lewis-Thompson: Dr. Saueressig grew up in Nuremberg, Germany, and she knew at an early age that she was going to become a veterinarian. But World War II put a pause on that dream. She was drafted into the German army as a medic. What was that time like for her?

Andy Primm: She said as an adult that during her childhood, I never dressed dolls, only dogs and cats. But of course she was taking nursing classes, and with the intention of continuing on to veterinary medical school. But she was drafted into the army during World War II. She was a medic on the German side during the war. Then in the final year of the war, she was actually captured by the Allies and spent that year in a POW camp.

Lewis-Thompson: Postwar, she went back to school, but her parents weren’t supportive of her becoming a veterinarian, because of the stigma associated with the profession. Why was veterinary medicine frowned upon, especially for women?

Primm: Working with animals was just seen as unclean back then. Maybe for the diseases that animals carried. Maybe it was believed that those would be passed on to people. I think it was believed also that that was a job that was more fit for men. Maybe it was seen at that time that men were the ones who should get their hands dirty. Of course, there was the stereotype that perhaps women should be doing more domestic work. Or if they were working something like a teacher. So at that time it was really unheard of for a woman to become a veterinarian.

Lewis-Thompson: She eventually graduated from Munich Veterinary College in 1953 as the only woman in her class. How did she end up in St. Louis?

Primm: St. Louis is a long way from Germany. But you know, St. Louis and Missouri have had a long history of German immigrants starting in the 1800s. There were several waves of German immigrants that moved to Missouri. From what I understand, Dr. Saueressig already had some relatives living in the St. Louis area. So she had wanted to travel and learn more about American veterinary medicine. Because of her connections in the area already, this seemed like a natural fit.

Dr. Suzanne Saueressig became the first practicing female veterinarian in Missouri.
Missouri Historical Society Collections
Dr. Suzanne Saueressig became the first practicing female veterinarian in Missouri.

Lewis-Thompson: She landed a job at a then-understaffed and ill-equipped Humane Society of Missouri, and at the same time St. Louis was experiencing an overpopulated pet problem. How did she handle that?

Primm: It’s really true. The pet overpopulation problem at that time was very serious. Dr. Saueressig once described it as chipping away at an iceberg with a teaspoon. But she was someone who would face things head-on. Even though the challenge was huge, she was undaunted by it.

Lewis-Thompson: Being the only woman there, did she get support from her colleagues?

Primm: Initially, there was a lot of pushback from older male doctors who were discriminating against her, both because of her being a woman, but also because she was an immigrant. These older male doctors at the clinic didn’t trust her abilities. But she very quickly proved herself, and a lot of those men who had been in positions of leadership had to make way as she was promoted ahead of them.

Lewis-Thompson: She went on to become the chief of staff for the clinic in 1965 and was later dubbed Woman Veterinarian of the Year. How have her contributions shaped veterinary medicine in St. Louis?

Primm: The Humane Society of Missouri clinic became one of the largest clinics in the midwest. They treat tens of thousands of animals a year. Her legacy is still being felt today. It’s still one of the largest clinic’s in the Midwest. The standard of care there is really one of the highest that you can find as well. That’s all thanks to her. She made sure that the clinics became clean and hygienic, but she made sure that they also had sophisticated modern equipment like X-ray machines, for example.

Lewis-Thompson: Why is it important for us to remember Dr. Saueressig?

Primm: Even though at the beginning of her career it was almost unheard of for a woman to graduate from veterinary medicine school, nowadays, the rates of women in veterinary school is between 60% to 80%. The majority of practicing veterinarians today are women.

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.