By Jennifer Hewlett
Dr. James Rooney didn't own or ride horses, and he didn't bet on them. But he liked to watch them run. Studying how and why horses move the way they do was a major focus of the first director of the University of Kentucky's Maxwell H. Gluck Equine Research Center.
Recognized worldwide as an authority on equine anatomy, pathology and biomechanics, Dr. Rooney died of complications from cancer Friday at his home in Chestertown, Md. He was 81.
"He, probably more than anyone else, was able to explain why lameness occurs in horses," said Dr. Neil Williams, a UK professor and pathologist at the school's Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center.
Dr. Rooney, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, became interested in horses as a child when he spent time on a farm in southern Maryland. He graduated from Dartmouth College, where he majored in English drama and minored in biology, in 1948. He went on to attend veterinary school at Cornell University, graduating in 1952. His first book, Autopsy of the Horse, was published while he was in veterinary school.
After two years as a research officer with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps, he earned a master's degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Before joining UK in 1961, he was chief of the pathologic-anatomy branch of the U.S. Army Biological Laboratories in Fort Detrick, Md.
Dr. Rooney left UK in 1968, but returned in 1983. In between those years, he established and served as acting director of the pathology program at the Equine Research Station in Newmarket, England, and was a researcher and professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
He headed the Gluck Center and the UK veterinary science department from 1987 until 1989, when he stepped down from those positions because of differences with UK President David Roselle. "It's a question of what the basic philosophy of the department is: whether it should be primarily a research department or more involved in the more applied aspects of things," Dr. Rooney said at the time. He stayed on at UK for several more years.
Dr. Rooney was the first person to recognize the neurological disease equine protozoal myelitis, which is caused by a parasite that lodges in a horse's spinal cord, said Dr. David Powell, a Gluck Center faculty member.
Powell added that Dr. Rooney's lectures were "most interesting, challenging and very enjoyable to listen to" because of his background in drama. Dr. Rooney acted in amateur and professional productions in Pennsylvania and Delaware and was a playwright.
Later in his career, he became interested in paleopathology. "He did a lot of work, going to places that had collections of fossilized horses. He studied those and looked for evidence that the prehistoric horse may have had certain diseases that the modern horse had," Williams said.
Dr. Rooney is survived by his wife, Audrey Rooney; a daughter, Melinda Florsheim of Mequon, Wis.; a son, Alec Rooney of Roanoke, Va.; and five grandchildren. A memorial service will be held in November.
Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.