Dr. Peter Davies, Professor Emeritus of the University of Minnesota, is being honored this week at the Minnesota Pork Congress for Distinguished Service.
Human and animal health is at the forefront of people’s minds now more than ever before, making Dr. Peter Davies lifelong career researching both subjects all the more critical. His zeal for continuous learning and encouraging those surrounding him to do the same has guided his journey leading him to be this year’s Distinguished Service award recipient.
Born and raised in Perth, Australia, Davies was a city boy who frequented his uncle’s wheat and sheep farm, as common there as a corn and pig farm in the Midwest. This agriculture experience set the framework for him moving forward as he attended veterinary school at the University of Melbourne and graduated in 1975 at 22 years old. In 1983 he received a Doctor of Philosophy distinction from the University of Sydney.
In his early years, Davies worked with ’all creatures great and small’ in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Deciding British winters were too harsh for his liking, Davies woke up one morning, opened the newspaper and saw a third-world opportunity in Brazil and thought, “I’m going somewhere warm.”
At the time Brazil was dealing with public health issues, specifically in less-privileged areas, with communities suffering from hygiene, nutrition, and food safety challenges. Davies spent two years volunteering as a livestock and community health advisor working with small farmers possessing limited resources. This experience piqued his interest in zoonotic disease, leading him back to Australia.
A swine research veterinary position for the South Australia Department of Agriculture came available, which led to him specializing in swine. The position focused on disease surveillance and Davies undertook research on swine diseases of importance to the local industry at the time, some of which also can cause infections in people. These included Strep suis, still a major challenge in today’s industry, and leptospirosis which at that time was causing market access problems for producers due to risks for harvest facility workers. Davies was recruited to the University of Minnesota in 1991 to help evaluate the disease surveillance system in the United States.
“A call came in the middle of the night asking me to come to Minnesota,” Davies recalled. “I knew the job would be interesting, and I was humbled knowing the University of Minnesota was a powerhouse institution for swine veterinary research. It wasn’t in my long-term planning to stay there.”
Over the next decade, Davies moved to North Carolina State University and New Zealand before returning to Minnesota as the Allen D. Leman Chair of Swine Health and Productivity, which he held for six years. Since then, his title has remained the same – Professor of Swine Health and Production, though his involvement has been anything but stagnant.
Industry Involvement and Improvement
Davies dedication to swine and human health is evident within the extensive body of research and publications in swine health, antimicrobial use and resistance, and zoonotic and food-born pathogens, including Salmonella and methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). In the past five years, he and other practicing American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) members and companion animal veterinarians have been involved in an intensive study researching infectious disease risks at the human-swine interface. The study focuses on MRSA, hepatitis E, and influenza.
From 2000 – 2007, Davies served on the International Scientific Committee of the International Research Center in Veterinary Epidemiology in Copenhagen, Denmark. He was also a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria from 2015 – 2018 and served on the editorial board for the Merck Veterinary Manual.
Serving on National Pork Board committees focused on food safety and occupational health and AASV committees, Davies advises and provides expertise at a variety of levels. He is regularly invited to speak at veterinary and swine conferences throughout the U.S. and internationally.
In 2019, Davies received the 2019 Howard Dunne Memorial Award, a most prestigious award presented to an AASV member who made a significant contribution and rendered exceptional service to the AASV and the swine industry.
Most veterinary students today are interested in companion animal practice; however, there is a pressing need to recruit the next generation of food animal and mixed animal veterinarians. Davies sees great promise in the Professional Practice in Veterinary Medicine program now being implemented between South Dakota State University (SDSU) and the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (UMN CVM). The program will admit up to 20 students per year and targets individuals wanting to serve food animal or mixed animal medicine in rural communities.
The program is meant to attract students with rural backgrounds to the veterinary medicine program and equip them with the knowledge and expertise to become successful veterinarians. Students complete their first two years of veterinary school at SDSU, then transfer and complete their last two years at the UMN CVM and graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.
Davies notes some of his most-valued relationships and issues-work in the pork safety arena stemmed from his work in North Carolina when Salmonella became a hot-topic issue. The first Safe Pork Conference convened in Ames, Iowa, with individuals across Europe and North America in attendance to discuss Salmonella.
The conference still assembles every two years to discuss food safety and pork safety issues. Only two people have attended every meeting – Davies being one of them.
“Many fertile and close relationships have formed from being a part of this group,” stated Davies. “To be able to find yourself in an international network of people who are well-informed on issues you are similarly invested in is very rewarding.”
Davies attributes much of his success to Allan Bell, the first man who hired him as a companion animal veterinarian straight out of college in New Zealand.
“A lot of people aren’t good at mentoring young professionals and either don’t give them enough responsibility or enough support” Davies acknowledged. “Allan was very good at giving me enough rope to hang myself but not letting me actually do it. This built my confidence greatly, and I left my first two years with him feeling very professionally formed.”
From his earliest days as a veterinarian, Davies realized the importance of dealing with people. In companion animal practice, one gains the skill to learn and understand people quickly due to the vast array of personalities seen on a daily basis.
Davies added how grateful he is to Andrew Pointon who hired him into the pig research world, and the Minnesota Swine Group as a unit, due to the outstanding opportunity he’s had to “work with highly competent
people who also work on developing others.”
Lifelong Learner and Mentor
Davies described the key to success for young people is adaptability. Through his many experiences, Davies learned the importance of thinking broadly and keeping his options open. Taking on a new venture may seem intimidating, but “being at the bottom of the learning curve isn’t a bad place to be because you learn a lot in a short period of time. If you’re a complete novice, you’ll learn a lot and have great opportunity to grow.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, as long as you’re learning something and having a good time,” Davies encouraged. “This is why I hopped around throughout my early career – maybe it was a short attention span, but I like to think it was curiosity about what else lies out there. I was interested in a lot, learning things, and having a really good time. It has been a great ride.”
The world holds so many opportunities, especially for young professionals. Davies explained the biggest mistake a young professional can make is to avoid adaptability and continuous learning, for life without these two things would be “very dull and boring”.
His avid mentorship to Masters and PhD students through the years has shaped the next generation of veterinarians and scientists, all of whom appreciated his passion and advisory. He has come to see his “academic offspring” do great things of which he is proud. Seeing his advisee’s grow as people and students is the greatest reward from his work at the University.
“Being around young, energetic, smart people is a good environment for an aging mind,” Davies stated. His greatest advice to his students is to “learn a lot and have a good time. It will open doors for your future.”
December 2021 marked Davies’ 46th year as a veterinarian. In his 46 years, Davies played many roles and wore many hats including advisor, researcher, professor, and spokesperson. Through each of these roles, Davies impacted countless others and will continue to do so through the legacy he is still paving. The Minnesota Pork Board is grateful to Dr. Peter Davies and his unwavering devotion to the swine industry at a state, national, and international level.
For information on other awards presented by the Minnesota Pork Board, check out mnporkcongress.com