By Mitch Emmons
Dr. Gary Beard retired from the College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008 after 17 years of service as assistant dean for outreach. A 2010 recipient of a Wilford S. Bailey Distinguished Alumnus Award, Dr. Beard is known for significantly enhancing two of the college’s main outreach events: Annual Conference and the popular Open House.
Under Dr. Beard’s leadership, Annual Conference became Auburn University’s biggest non-football weekend, outpacing football in terms of local revenue generated through area hotels for four consecutive nights. The college’s annual Open House each spring has increased in attendance annually since the first event held in the early 1990s.
Among students, Dr. Beard was thought of as a teacher; among faculty, he was a colleague and innovator; among the professional veterinary community at large, he was an ambassador and visionary. But what some may not know was that he also was among the first veterinarians to become a board-certified veterinary dentist—a specialty he helped to pioneer.
Dr. Beard grew up working on a dairy farm in Leeds, Ala., and knew from the age of 12 that he was going to become a veterinarian.
“I got my first exposure to veterinary medicine working on Spruiell’s dairy farm [Spruiell’s Homemade Ice Cream],” Dr. Beard said. “The owner, Jack Spruiell, had been in vet school up until his junior year, when he had to leave school and come home to run the dairy after the death of his father. From day one, he talked to me about veterinary medicine. I knew from the beginning that becoming a veterinarian was what I wanted to do.”
Dr. Beard graduated from Leeds High School in 1949 and, that fall, enrolled in the pre-veterinary medicine curriculum at Auburn.
“I was standing on the lawn of Langdon Hall with the rest of the entering freshmen getting our orientation lecture,” Dr. Beard recalled. “The guy standing right next to me was Tom Vaughan. Since that day, we have been friends and colleagues.”
Dr. Vaughan went on to become Dean J.T. Vaughan of the College of Veterinary Medicine. For Dr. Beard, it was the beginning of a spectacular career that would include his education at Auburn University, send him to military service during the Korean War, and then bring him back again.
“I left Auburn in 1950 after the Korean War broke out and served a stint in the Air Force,” Dr. Beard said. “Tom [Vaughan] stayed at Auburn in school and went on to graduate and become a member of the veterinary faculty. When I came back in ’55, my old friend and classmate had become my teacher.”
Dr. Beard graduated with his DVM degree with the class of ’59 and almost immediately entered private practice. “I took over a practice in Baton Rouge,” Dr. Beard said.
For the next 27 years, he would become a widely respected veterinary professional not only in the state of Louisiana, but throughout the nation. During this time, Dr. Beard and a handful of other veterinarians began to explore the then-nonexistent realm of veterinary dentistry.
“In my era, veterinary dentistry was ‘if the teeth are dirty, clean them; if the teeth are bad, pull them,’” Dr. Beard said.
“I was fortunate that my practice was next door to a dentist,” Dr. Beard said. “We got to be good friends, and I became interested in dentistry as a potential veterinary specialty.”
He said he learned a lot about dentistry in a true comparative medicine, one-health manner.
“Animals and humans have very similar kinds of dental issues,” Dr. Beard said. “At that time, there was no veterinary dentistry program to learn from, so human dentistry was my teacher.”
Dr. Beard noted that a small group of other practitioners also became keenly interested in veterinary dentistry. Notably, Drs. Beard, Peter Emily, Tom Mulligan and Chuck Williams began a collaboration that became the foundation of veterinary dentistry specialization. This group went on to form the international Society of Veterinary Dentistry. That organization later became the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry, with Dr. Beard serving as its first president.
Later, the group led to the formation of the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC), which today is the clinical specialist organization for veterinary dentists, recognized by the American Board of Veterinary Specialists of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Dr. Beard became a charter diplomate of the AVDC in 1988. He also was a recipient of the Fido Award, given by the American Animal Health Association (AAHA) in recognition of substantial contributions to the field of veterinary medicine. His contributions are acknowledged in a textbook Small Animal Dentistry written by Colin E. Harvey and Peter P. Emily that is in AU’s Cary Veterinary Medical Library.
Dr. Beard and his peers began to crusade for the cause of veterinary dentistry in the 1960s and early 1970s.
“On weekends, we would get together and travel to veterinary conferences. We would give talks about dentistry and, as we did, interest grew,” he said.
Dr. Beard cultivated a relationship with the dental school at Louisiana State University (LSU). He was becoming a true expert in the field and his private practice became the first in the nation to offer a veterinary dental residency outside of a formal school of veterinary medicine.
Among Dr. Beard’s early protégés was a young pre-veterinary student at LSU (which did not have a veterinary school at the time), Robert Lofton. Dr. Beard influenced young Lofton to pursue veterinary medicine at Auburn rather than the other options Louisiana residents had then. Following a stellar private practice career in Lake Charles, La., Dr. Robert Lofton now leads the veterinary dentistry work at Auburn as an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences and at a service through the college’s Auburn University Veterinary Clinic.
“Gary Beard was never one to shy away from an opportunity,” Dr. Lofton said. “He was that way in private practice and he was that way during his career at Auburn.”
When Dr. Beard left his private practice and returned to Auburn as a member of the veterinary faculty and administration, dentistry was not in the curriculum. “They had recently dropped a course in back surgery,” Dr. Beard said. “I saw that as an opportunity and grabbed it.” He convinced the curriculum committee and administration to let him teach a course in veterinary dentistry. From that point, veterinary dentistry became a constant in the Auburn CVM course offerings.
“Today, veterinary dentistry is as specialized as is human dentistry, but Gary Beard and his small group of champions were practicing veterinary dentistry and offering it as a service long before it was even considered a specialty and long before there were any board-certified veterinary dental specialists,” Dr. Lofton added. “Gary was always willing to try something new.”
That fearless curiosity led Dr. Beard to be one of the earliest veterinarians to perform dental implants on dogs. He recalled a particularly memorable case involving the treatment of an Arkansas state prison service dog. “It was during the ’70s and there was a lot of turmoil among the inmates going on in the nation’s prisons,” he said.
One of the guard dogs had recently been brought to Dr. Beard’s small animal hospital in Baton Rouge with broken canine teeth. Dr. Beard installed titanium implants, which he said gave the dog a fierce appearance. “It was like looking at a vicious dog with shiny metal fangs,” he said. The incident at the Arkansas prison was brought on when protesting inmates refused to return to their cells for lockdown, Dr. Beard said.
“They were holding a protest sit-in,” he said. “The warden asked the handler of the titanium-toothed guard dog if he could intervene. The handler said he could; but, first, he needed to go to the kitchen. He returned with a jar of peanut butter and began to smear peanut butter under the dog’s upper lip. He then began to walk the dog among and past the sit-in inmates—all the while the dog was looking, licking and baring its shiny titanium fangs at them.”
Dr. Beard said that when the dog and handler reached the end of the line of protesting inmates and approached their leader, the guard simply said to the inmate that he understood his position among his fellow inmates and that he respected his leadership role, but if he did not convince the protesting inmates to return to their cells at once, that he and his dog also had a role to fulfill and he would have no alternative but to turn that snarling dog with shiny titanium fangs loose.
“The inmates went back to their cells without further incident,” Dr. Beard said laughing.
Today, veterinary dentistry accounts for 15-20 percent of a practitioner’s service income among those offering it. Dr. Beard and his small nucleus of early pioneers are responsible for that amazing progression. And retirement has not brought Dr. Beard to a halt.
He has been active in helping to gain the support of community veterinarians in the Gulf Shores, Ala., area for the soon-to-be-constructed Auburn University Educational Complex that, among other things, will house a veterinary referral center and will serve as a resource for local veterinarians and residents. A long-time civic-minded person who has cultivated many contacts during his vast career, Dr. Beard also still champions veterinary causes such as the Southeastern Raptor Center. And, he also spends a great deal of his time these days visiting his four daughters, his five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, who all live in various parts of the country.
This year recognizes 125 years of veterinary medicine excellence at Auburn University. When asked what, in his opinion, has been the most significant achievement of the college during that time, Dr. Beard said, without hesitation, “Its students.”
“All of the things achieved by Dr. Charles Cary in the early days of the program to improve food safety and food inspections and to establish food safety laws, to help eradicate diseases that plagued the livestock of the day and to benefit the quality of life among the recovering agricultural South were extremely important,” Dr. Beard said. “But Auburn’s veterinary program was then and still is known for preparing its graduates to immediately begin to practice and contribute to their profession. It is our students that are the program’s greatest accomplishment.”
“Veterinary dentistry has grown from extraction dentistry to preservation dentistry,” Dr. Lofton said. “Today, it is as specialized as its human medicine counterpart. Among the veterinary profession, that is what Gary Beard helped bring about. That is his greatest accomplishment and contribution to our profession.”