08/06/2017 8:50PM

Dr. William R. McGee, pioneering equine surgeon who treated Man o’ War, dies at 100

Keeneland Photo
Dr. William R. McGee in 2009.

Noted veterinarian Dr. William R. McGee, a former partner in the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute and a pioneering equine surgeon, died on Aug. 5 in Naples, Fla. He was 100 years old.

McGee was born Feb. 1, 1917 in Corvallis, Mont., and graduated from the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1939 before beginning his career, which was bolstered early by family friends. The veterinary practice E. T. Hagyard & Sons had been established by Dr. Edward Hagyard, who earlier had worked in Montana and had mutual friends of the McGee family. Dr. Charles Hagyard invited McGee to Lexington for a one-year internship, which turned into a longstanding business relationship. Eventually, the firm was renamed Hagyard-Davidson-McGee, in which the third partner was Dr. Art Davidson. Today, the equine hospital’s McGee Medicine Center and McGee Fertility Center are named in the former veterinarian’s honor.

“His dedication and compassion to the patients under his care are as legendary as the many renowned heroes of the turf that experienced his skillful expertise,” said Dr. Stuart Brown of Hagyard. “It is remarkable to reflect on his career from his arrival in our practice as an intern, to more recent years when we have enjoyed his presence in welcoming our incoming intern classes at Hagyard Equine Medical and watch as they listened closely to his words and those lessons that remained as insightful and inspirational to this very day.”

McGee specialized in management of breeding stock, and over the years was in the forefront of various advances in that specialty as the Thoroughbred breeding industry underwent massive changes. He is believed to have performed the first successful cesarean section operation on a broodmare, along with Dr. A. Gary Lavin, in 1963. Although the foal did not survive, the broodmare did, and went on to a productive career.  

“All we had was chloral hydrate for her, and did it in a stall and got the foal out, and she survived, and got back in foal, which makes it a success,” McGee said in an interview for the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History’s Horse Industry in Kentucky Oral History Project.

McGee pioneered the surgical repair of a ruptured bladder in the horse, once regarded as virtually a death sentence. He also studied and utilized improvements in parasite control in horses, as well as increased availability of penicillin.

McGee’s famous patients included Man o’ War, whose centennial is being celebrated this year. He was the final veterinarian to care for the horse as an aging stallion in Kentucky, advising owner Samuel Riddle on the pensioning of the stallion and attending to him at his passing. He was one of nine speakers during the national radio broadcast of Man o’ War’s funeral.

“In the breeding shed, he'd kind of faint, pass out breeding a mare,” McGee recalled in his interview for the Nunn Center. “And a time or two he about passed out on my shoulders. I said, ‘We're going to have to do away with this, somebody's going to get hurt sure enough.’ Well Mr. Riddle says, ‘Well just retire him, let's just let him have his old age in peace and quiet.’ … I told Mr. Riddle, ‘Sometime, this old horse is going to leave us, and what do you want to do about it?’ He said, ‘Well, do what you can to make him comfortable, but don't drag it out on him, that's all. Just, time comes, let him go.’ Story got around he was euthanized and he was put to sleep. He wasn't put to sleep. I was out there doing something else one day, and the groom came in and said, ‘He's down.’ And I went up and he wasn't thrashing around, but he was breathing kind of intermittently, and I checked his heart and he was slumped down. I said, ‘Well, he's – the time has come.’ But I didn't euthanize him. It was, I guess, maybe a half hour after I got there that he just passed away.”

In June 2015, McGee, then 98, visited Churchill Downs to meet American Pharoah, the newest member of the exclusive fraternity of Triple Crown winners. At that time, the vet said he recalled seeing or treating at least six Triple Crown winners in their post-racing careers as stallions.

McGee’s many awards and honors throughout his career included, in 1992, being recognized as the Thoroughbred Club of America’s honored guest, as a joint honoree with Davidson. He served as a past president of that organization, and also was a past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

McGee, who owned Winton Farm in Lexington, was preceded in death four years ago by his wife Alice. He is survived by two sons, William R. McGee Jr. (Judy) and Michael McGee (Mary), three grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.