When Jennifer Olson graduated from Cornell University in 2009, she did more than just earn her DVM degree. She picked up the family’s long-standing torch in veterinary medicine.
Dr. Olson is carrying on the tradition of her great grandfather, who earned his veterinary degree in 1909, her grandmother and grandfather who earned their degrees in 1937 and 1957, respectively, and her father, who earned his degree in 1973. All four generations graduated from Cornell University.
Olson, who currently works at Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio, was fairly certain she wanted to pursue veterinary medicine in elementary school. She explored other options along the way but going into veterinary medicine just seemed natural.
She recalls going to her father’s cat hospital after school, helping with appointments, and cleaning cages and baseboards, among other tasks.
“The funny thing is, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, my gosh, you work around your parents,’ but I had so much fun with my dad growing up,” she says.
When asked if she—an only child—felt it was expected of her to carry the family tradition, she said no.
“My parents were really supportive in whatever I wanted to do, but I grew up around [veterinary medicine] and just fell in love with it,” Olson says.
Her father, Jim Olson, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (feline), practice owner and lead veterinarian at Cat Specialist in Castle Rock, Colo., expresses similar sentiments.
“It was nice to see my daughter follow in the family profession at Cornell but if Jen had taken another path I would have supported that,” Dr. Jim Olson says. “Working at something you love is the ultimate vocation.”
As for her choice in veterinary colleges: “Having a family connection to Cornell was a positive but the resources and the quality of the educational opportunities was the clincher,” he says. “Of course, I was very happy at her choice, but it was totally her choice to make.”
The 100-year torch begins with Olson’s great grandfather, Frederick Koenig, who graduated from Cornell in 1909. He worked with the school’s ambulatory service for a number of years and then went on to start a small animal practice in Jamestown, N.Y.
His daughter, Marie Koenig, grew up in the veterinary lifestyle and decided to become a veterinarian herself, Olson says. She graduated from Cornell in 1937, becoming the seventh woman to graduate with a Cornell DVM degree, according to the college.
“She was a renaissance woman,” Olson says. “She was the only woman in her vet school class. I can’t even imagine. … The demographics for the field has a changed a lot. She was a frontrunner, tough and strong and so many things. She set the bar very, very high.”
Marie Koenig eventually took over her father’s business, running the veterinary hospital on her own. It was during this time that she met her future husband, Raymond Olson, when he brought in his hunting dog for an examination. They fell in love and later married, Olson says.
Raymond Olson decided to become a veterinarian after serving overseas during World War II. Marie Koenig put her husband through college while raising two children—Olson’s father and aunt—and running the animal hospital.
“Again, she is the most amazing person I can imagine,” Olson says of her grandmother.
Raymond Olson graduated from Cornell in 1957, 20 years after his wife. The couple ran the animal hospital as a team until Marie Koenig passed away; Jim Olson was still in vet school at the time.
“Dad loved [veterinary medicine] and decided to become a vet so went to Cornell too,” Olson says.
When Jim Olson graduated in 1973, Raymond Olson happily passed the reins to his son, Olson says.
“Without [my grandmother], I think it wasn’t the same thing [for him],” says Olson, noting that her grandfather is also now deceased. “She was the whole reason he was a veterinarian.”
Jim Olson ran the family business for several years and then started a new venture by establishing Cat Specialist in Castle Rock, Colo.
A Look Ahead
Olson’s long-term goal is to become board certified in feline medicine.
“We all seem to follow each other,” says Olson, noting her father’s specialty.
In preparation for certification, Olson has already worked on one case report with her father. She hopes to complete another while at Alamo Feline Health Center, where she started working in August. The San Antonio cat hospital, owned by Gary Norsworthy, DVM, Dipl. ABVP (feline), is South Texas’s only hospital limited to cats.
Working in such an environment should help her gain more feline-specific experience, Olson says.
“[Dr. Norsworthy] likes mentoring and I like learning, so here I am,” she says.
Olson can also see herself one day working with or even helping out her father at his cat hospital, she says.
If there’s one thing that her father has helped her with, it is learning how to be a good veterinarian by example, she says.
“[My dad] has a lot of integrity,” she says. “He’s very honest with clients. When I watch him talk to people I know he stands by what he’s saying. That’s what he would do if it was his cat. If they can’t afford something or if it’s not within reach, he tries to work with them. You get in the business because you like science, you like animals, but really you are taking care of people, and he taught me that.”