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A Distinguished Professorship for an Extraordinary Scientist

Dean Lunn presents award to Ed Breitschwerdt
Dean Paul Lunn (left) with Ed Breitschwerdt, (right) the Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professorship in Medicine. Photo by John Joyner/NC State Veterinary Medicine.

The most impressive thing about Ed Breitschwerdt isn’t the awards he has — and there are many of those. It’s not that he runs a world-renowned infectious disease laboratory or that it’s an understatement to call his research output prolific.

What stays with you is what it means to him to teach a single student.

He talks about it as not a job but a mission. Students remember him because he challenges them, but always with a purpose. You go to him not to hear what you want to hear but what you need to hear and you’re better for it.

Breitschwerdt, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases who came to the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine in 1982, has influenced students in every CVM class to step through the college’s doors and then out into the veterinary profession.

“When it’s all said and done, the only thing you have is your reputation and character, and mine’s far from perfect on either side,” said Breitschwerdt. “But I’m not going to have a student who I’m responsible for teaching, and who is going to go out there and practice veterinary medicine, not do what’s expected of them. Not going to happen.”

Breitschwerdt’s influence runs deep. He has trained many members of the CVM family — residents, interns, now-colleagues — who have gone on to become endowed professors. On April 3, he became one himself when he received the Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professorship in Medicine.

The $1 million endowment, which includes a generous gift from Steele, a longtime NC State Veterinary Hospital client and supporter, with the rest in matching funds, supports a professor active in teaching, research and clinical practice in small animal medicine.

Breitschwerdt has never stopped doing all three.

“To do something that has an impact, I never dreamed would happen to a farm boy from Maryland,” he said.

A Gentleman and a Scholar

Breitschwerdt’s career is what happens when someone, unencumbered by what’s conventional, allows passion to guide the way.

He entered academia with a strong drive to teach internal medicine. When he came to the CVM from Louisiana State University, Breitschwerdt realized he has a strong pull toward infectious disease research — so he, simply, started doing that. He needed to create laboratories the CVM did not have at the time to do the type of work he wanted to do, so he did that, too.

Breitschwerdt has long turned down offers to join private practices or to step into administrative roles because that would mean less time devoted to clinics and mentoring and other projects, including directing the CVM’s Biosafety Level 3 Laboratory and the Intracellular Pathogens Research Laboratory at NC State’s Comparative Medicine Institute. He co-directs the Vector Borne Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, which he helped launched and is now used globally as an infectious disease reference lab, testing samples for dangerous pathogens.

He was never formally trained as a researcher, but is widely recognized as a world leader in the study of Bartonella, a bacterium that causes an array of diseases in companion animals and humans.

He does all this while still seeing clinical internal medicine cases in the hospital three months out of the year. And he does all this after sometimes starting his day at 6 a.m. responding to consult requests involving human infectious disease cases.  

Breitschwerdt’s determination and grit speaks to Steele, the professorship’s namesake. Dogs are important members of her family and they’re also her life. A giant in the world of show-dog breeding, Steele has taken home numerous best-in-show awards for her greyhounds and other breeds. For nearly thirty years, she has always taken her dogs to the NC State Veterinary Hospital for specialty care, including cardiology, soft tissue and orthopedics.

Even though Steele, a board member of the North Carolina Veterinary Medical Foundation, moved from Charlotte to Bluffton, S.C., seven years ago, she still brings her dogs to NC State.

She has long valued the friendships she has made with the hospital’s clinicians and respects their willingness to work so closely with her to find the best treatment solutions for her dogs. She sees the incredibly vital impact of Breitschwerdt’s work.

“He’s a gentleman and a giant in his field, and this kind of support is truly made for someone like him,” said Steele. “He’s phenomenal. We’re rewarding someone who truly, completely deserves it.”

Tough Love

Breitschwerdt’s office on the fourth floor of the CVM Research Building is delightfully disheveled. Stacks on stacks of papers intermingle with and notebooks and journals that covering every inch of desktop space.

He points over to spot on a groaning bookcase. There’s a textbook there written by one of his mentors, James E. Breazile, a veterinary anatomist and physiologist, when he was a first-year medicine resident at the University of Missouri.

“I would have a kidney case or a brain case, you name it,” Breitschwerdt said. “I could go to him and ask, ‘Can I talk to you about a case?’ He would look at me, we would talk and he would write. When we were finished, he’d pull off two sheets of paper with notes and hand them to me. I’d walk out of there with my mouth hanging open.”

But some of Breitschwerdt’s most formative experiences had nothing to do with veterinary medicine at all. He grew up on a 70-acre farm in central Maryland with cattle, chickens, ducks and pigs, still owns a farm with his brothers on the state’s Eastern Shore and now lives on a family farm in Fuquay Varina. As a boy, he earned spending money by raising vegetables and selling them at the end of the road.

His first job off the farm was loading hay and riding a combine, and he later drove a dump truck in nearby Washington, D.C. His father was an iron worker, and Breitschwerdt did iron work himself for four summers.

“The reason I became a veterinarian was because we had a family milk cow that developed milk fever,” said Breitschwerdt. “The veterinarian came, dropped a needle in the vein, put in calcium and within five minutes that cow stood up. I thought, that’s what I want to do.

“I remember my ninth-grade guidance counselor told me that based on some test I took I didn’t have the acumen to become a veterinarian. That was the second reason I became a veterinarian.”

He was passionate about another type work, too. As a teenager, he joined the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. At 16, he soloed in a Piper J3 and flew in a fighter jet upside down. He seriously considered joining the Air Force Academy, but still remembered the vet who saved his family’s cow. He studied animal science at the University of Maryland before earning a DVM at the University of Georgia.

“I was going to go back home to join a mixed animal practice. I had a job offer,” said Breitschwerdt. “But I had support from two faculty members who told me that I really ought to do an internship. And honestly, I think this still happens with our faculty here. Sometimes we see things in our students that they don’t see in themselves.”

“He inspires confidence in those who work with him. He contributes so much to making NC State what it is.” ~ Erin Lashnits, Ph.D student 

So many current and former CVM students have an Ed Breitschwerdt story. Erin Lashnits has worked with him since the first year of her residency at the CVM. The resident project they worked on together about Bartonella infections in dogs in North America was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine.

When Lashnits decided to join a Ph.D. program at the CVM, she knew she wanted to continue working with Breitschwerdt. Before she first came to NC State, Lashnits heard Breitschwerdt discussing a tick-borne disease on National Public Radio’s “People’s Pharmacy” program. He exceeded her expectations, she said.

“He approaches every new idea and project with intellectual rigor and an amazing level of clinical expertise,” said Lashnits. “He inspires confidence in those who work with him. He contributes so much to making NC State what it is.”

Eleanor Hawkins, professor of small animal internal medicine, met Breitschwerdt when she arrived at the CVM in 1991. The two have often worked together on the clinic floor and have collaborated on research projects. In 2005, Hawkins, then as American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine chairperson, presented him with the Robert W. Kirk Award for Professional Excellence, the ACVIM’s highest honor.

She said it is largely because of Breitschwerdt that no student, intern or resident finishes training at the CVM without knowing the critical importance of fighting infectious diseases.

“His sincere and caring manner has resulted in a legion of trainees that continue to keep in touch with him even when separated by miles and years,” Hawkins said. “His reach extends throughout the world.”

Breitschwerdt calls his teaching style “tough love,” but his approach is refreshingly simple.

“I was told long ago, back when I was an intern, that you never talk down to veterinarians. You always try to bring them up,” he said. “I believe that the least you expect is the most you get.”

And it always helps to keep a good sense of humor.  

“I’ve had a lot of residents. I’ve had a lot of graduate students,” he said. “They all know that my style of education for someone at that level is that everything is a discussion and everything is a suggestion, except the very few things that are not suggestions and they better know which ones those are.”

A Clear Purpose

One dog changed Breitschwerdt’s life.

Not long into his infectious disease career at the CVM, a colleague at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found out that the bacterium Bartonella, that no one knew existed in North America, caused cat’s scratch disease in humans.

That led to Breitschwerdt’s research into understanding Bartonella in cats. Eventually, his Vector Borne Diseases Diagnostic Laboratory was the first in the world to find a case of Bartonella infecting a dog. That discovery changed the focus of his research program and continues to influence its direction.

Before 1990, only one Bartonella species had a name. Now there are nearly 40 and most connected to wide range of diseases, including heart infections and other chronic illnesses in cats, dogs and other animals. Fifteen years ago, only three human diseases — cat’s scratch disease, trench fever and Carrion’s disease — were known to be caused by Bartonella organisms. Now, a growing number of Bartonella species and subspecies impact humans.

More is being learned about Bartonella every day. Breitschwerdt’s is a big part of that growing scholarship.

“If you ask me what keeps me going now, it’s a single genus of bacteria,” said Breitschwerdt. “It’s a genus of bacteria that I believe is of immense importance to society. It’s a genus of bacteria that I believe is causing more disease than anyone would have ever guessed in human and veterinary medicine.”

Breitschwerdt’s innovative research is particularly impressive to Steele, who regularly must closely monitor the chance of tick-borne diseases affecting her dogs.

“What NC State has done for human and animal medicine is unbelievable,” said Steele. “It’s thrilling to think about where we and Dr. Breitschwerdt can go in the future.”

Breitschwerdt doesn’t really think of the future — he thinks about his research. He thinks about it when he drives to work and when he drives home. During this interview, he was thinking about the most recent published Bartonella study he co-authored, looking at the prevalence of the bacterium in blood donors in Brazil.

“I know what I think is important,” said Breitschwerdt, “and that’s the research questions that need to be answered by veterinary medicine between now and the end of my career. If 1/10th of what we published ends up being upheld by other researchers in regard to the devastation that this has caused families around the world, that will be enough for me.”

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine