D. Patterson, veterinary geneticist

Posted: June 26, 2013

Donald Patterson was a man of firsts.

He founded the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school genetics clinic, the first of its kind in the country. He was the first to identify certain heart diseases in dogs that correlated to those in humans. And he contracted what is believed to be the first reported case of chimp-to-human-transmitted hepatitis A.

Dr. Patterson, 82, a longtime Philadelphia resident, died Saturday, June 8, at Northwest Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. He had been living at Ashford House, an adult family home in Shoreline, Wash.

A veterinarian and 42-year professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine, he is widely credited with shaping the field of animal genetics and received the American Veterinary Medical Association's Lifetime Excellence in Research Award in 2011. His research particularly included genetics and canine heart disease. He founded Penn Medical Genetics Clinic's academic division in 1971.

He was born in Venezuela to American parents and moved to the United States during World War II. He completed a joint undergraduate and veterinary degree at Oklahoma A&M - now Oklahoma State University - in 1954. He completed graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.

Dr. Patterson served in the Air Force from 1956 to 1958, during which time he retrieved 24 chimpanzees from Africa; one, Ham, became the first chimp launched into space. He contracted hepatitis A from one of the chimps, although it never affected his health, his son Russ Patterson said.

He loved the English language and sometimes wrote poetry. Once, when he was hosting a medical conference, he summarized each of the presentations in verse. He kept an unabridged English dictionary in the kitchen of his home.

"When I was doing homework and came down and asked what a word meant, his first question was, 'Did you look it up in the dictionary?' " his son Wade Patterson said. If not, he made his son crack the dictionary and learn the word for himself.

Dr. Patterson worked to build community among his colleagues. He frequently threw dinner parties with his first wife, Nancy Hankins Patterson.

"They were kind to embrace us and get us familiar with Philadelphia," veterinary school professor Urs Giger said.

Nancy Patterson died in 1990. Dr. Patterson married Grayson Cecil in 1991; they divorced in 1994. He wed Moyra Smith in 1996.

In addition to his wife and sons, Dr. Patterson is survived by four grandchildren.

A memorial in Philadelphia will be held in October.

Donations may be made to Alzheimer's Association, University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, the American Veterinary Medical Association, or the Seeing Eye Foundation.

Contact Sarah Smith at 215-854-2771, ssmith@phillynews.com, or on Twitter at @sarahesmith23.

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