Biography: Michael J. McCulloch

Dr. Michael J. McCulloch’s poignant vision was born of this belief that through medicine he could help people and through knowledge of human-animal relationships, he could improve the healing art. McCulloch’s training in psychiatry gave him a special understanding of human behavior and his love of animals made him keenly aware of the special affinities between people and animals. It was his efforts through his research, publications, education and leadership that helped establish the legitimacy of the human-animal bond, in providing comfort.

When he was a medical student at the University of Iowa he became interested in the published works of Dr. Boris Levinson, PhD, a child psychologist who published about pet-facilitated therapy, child psychology and the role of the veterinarian in mental health in the 1960’s. Levinson was first to report in detail the therapeutic benefits of contact with pets for children and adults in both inpatient and outpatient settings. His work influenced and shaped the direction of McCulloch’s career. His brother William F. McCulloch, DVM, a faculty member at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, “…encouraged him to be a beacon of the medical profession and pursue this area.”

Dr. Michael J. McCulloch received his MD from the University of Iowa in 1969. Following an internship at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane, Washington, he completed a Residency in Psychiatry at the University of Oregon Medical School at Portland in 1973.

During the 1970’s, animals had a place alongside humans but there was little support for the idea that they had an impact on their human’s health and well-being. Such observations were considered “soft science” and a “passing fad.” It was in this environment that McCulloch began lecturing to veterinarians and veterinary medical students at the University of Missouri. The media was somewhat skeptical of this “new” area of endeavor, splashing news articles with headlines such as, “Psychiatrist Goes to the Dogs.”

In 1975, McCulloch became a member of a National Advisory Committee of a U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare Project which was tasked with defining the activities of veterinarians as they relate to human health. He wrote a chapter called “Mental and Emotional Health” on the role of the veterinarian with other health professionals and veterinary clients. This work further supported the comments by Dr. Boris Levinson with recognition of the role of veterinarians in human-animal relationships in the mental health field. The impact of this study was considerable. Universities began offering courses. Centers were established to conduct research and education on one or several of human-animal interactions or relationships.

In 1976 a national symposium was convened on “Implications of History and Ethics to Medicine – Veterinary and Human” at Texas A & M University between the medical and veterinary medical profession. McCulloch gave a landmark paper entitled, “The Veterinarian and Human Health-Care Systems: Issues and Boundaries” that further legitimized the human-animal discipline.

“I think Michael’s most lasting contribution,” explained Aaron Katcher, MD, a former colleague from the University of Pennsylvania, “has been the establishment of a home for this kind of research, for research into human-animal relationships. It was his tireless efforts in lecturing, in talking, in jawboning with people in veterinary medicine and in psychiatry that established the legitimacy of this kind of interest.”

In 1977, McCulloch helped establish and was the first President of the Delta Foundation which was tasked with studying the human-animal relationships and how they may be used to facilitate therapy. He became the Vice President when it became the Delta Society in 1981. To aid in research on this “new” topic, he convinced the Pet Food Institute to invest in 100’s of thousands of dollars for research to explore the human health benefits of our companion animals.

McCulloch held a private practice in psychiatry in the 1970’s and 1980’s at Northwest Psychiatric Associates in Portland, Oregon where he lived with his wife and family. He also served as Clinical Instructor at Oregon Health Sciences University and as Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University.

Tragically his life was cut short, when on June 26, 1985, Dr. Michael McCulloch was shot by a disturbed former patient and died. The fields of psychiatry and of the study of human-animal relationships suffered a great loss with his passing. We will never know where his beacon of compassion for people and animals would have illuminated the healing arts further. But we will know that he accomplished his mission to cure when possible but comfort always.’

“Michael had that unique ability to get people to open their eyes to what’s around them and to let themselves actually come to grips with something they already knew in their hearts. His own sort of infectious enthusiasm was what built a social structure for this research interest, and one of the things that Michael knew very well was that human nature is tied up with the world around it. We are human when we care about and nurture the world around us.” –Aaron Katcher, MD

Interesting Fact

Michael J. McCulloch was allergic to animals – but knowing the important role they could play in his and his family’s lives, he found ways to live with 2 cats, 2 birds and a dog.


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