Dr. John Ellis is the 2024 recipient of the Distinguished Veterinary Microbiologist Award from the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists (ACVM). Photo: Christina Weese.
Dr. John Ellis is the 2024 recipient of the Distinguished Veterinary Microbiologist Award from the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists (ACVM). Photo: Christina Weese.

‘Chance favoured a distractible mind’: USask professor’s curiosity leads to career award

French chemist, pharmacist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur once said, “Chance favours the prepared mind only” when describing discovery through research.

By Tyler Schroeder

“In my case, ‘Chance favoured a distractible mind,’” says Dr. John Ellis (DVM, PhD), a University of Saskatchewan professor and researcher at Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).

“One of the great things about veterinary medicine is the opportunities for working on many different species and diseases. I’m a curious person, but I’m also a contrarian,” says Ellis, a faculty member in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology.

“The ultimate driver for me is to examine dogma and ask the question, ‘Is that really true and what are the supportive data?’”

His curious, contrarian nature has earned Ellis the 2024 Distinguished Veterinary Microbiologist Award — an honour that the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists (ACVM) annually presents to an outstanding member. The prestigious award recognizes Ellis’s many career contributions to veterinary microbiology as well as other fields through his research, teaching and service.

Ellis began studying veterinary medicine with intentions of becoming a small animal practitioner, but he shifted his focus to veterinary microbiology and pathology when he developed an interest in investigating infectious disease.

“Visually, disease is a very beautiful thing and studying lesions in histological sections turned me on to the whole process,” say Ellis. “Almost everything that I've done has been related to infectious disease.”

Ellis earned his veterinary degree from the University of Illinois in 1979, followed by a PhD degree in comparative pathology from Colorado State University in 1984.

“At that point in time, most people went into faculty positions after completing their PhD. But my adviser suggested I do a postdoctoral fellowship, so I went to the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD) in Nairobi, Kenya, to study bovine immunology,” says Ellis. At ILRAD, Ellis worked in a team that developed monoclonal antibodies for bovine leukocytes, which were the first of their kind and have been widely employed by researchers worldwide. 

Back in North America, his research work has involved a wide variety of species and infectious diseases including Bordatella bronchiseptica in dogs, bovine respiratory syncytial virus in calves, and lentiviruses in sheep.

Arguably, his work with porcine circovirus 2, one of the most important viral pathogens in pigs, has had the most impact. At the WCVM, a team of investigators led by Ellis was the first to isolate the virus and experimentally reproduce typical disease with their isolate. This seminal work led to the development of internationally applied porcine circovirus vaccines, which have been the most widely used veterinary vaccines in history.

Ellis joined the WCVM faculty in 1992 and has spent the past 32 years teaching immunology and virology to veterinary students at the college. In addition to being an ACVM diplomate in both immunology and virology, Ellis is a board-certified specialist with the American College of Veterinary Pathologists.

A major part of Ellis’s successes as a researcher and educator lie in his ability to effectively communicate his findings. He’s written or co-authored more than 250 peer-reviewed publications as well as textbook chapters, and he was the second-most cited author in veterinary literature between 1995 and 2005.

“I think that the whole purpose of academia is to discover new things, and with that comes the actions of either ‘publish or perish.’ I really do enjoy writing papers and speaking about the work, and do think that the most effective teachers have experience working in some of the areas that they’re teaching in.”

Dr. Janet Hill (PhD), head of the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Microbiology, says that Ellis’s wealth of knowledge and experience across a wide spectrum of species and topics makes him a deserving recipient of the ACVM award.

“While he’s probably best known for contributions in the areas of vaccines, disease pathogenesis and immunology in livestock species, if you take a look at his publication list you’ll see everything from dogs to polar bears,” says Hill.

“It’s an amazing body of work.”

Dr. Nathan Erickson (DVM), an associate professor in WCVM’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, was a veterinary student at the WCVM when he first became familiar with Ellis’s work in bovine respiratory disease. A few years after joining the WCVM faculty in 2015, Erickson began working on a PhD program under Ellis’s supervision with a focus on studying sustainable beef cattle herd production and bovine respiratory disease immunization protocols.

“I was always interested in his research, and as I worked closely with him and …[went] through more and more questions with him, I realized that a PhD program would be the next step,” says Erickson.

The experience has given Erickson an appreciation for Ellis’s ability to lead and mentor many veterinary students and veterinarians at the college. During his career, he has supervised and mentored over 60 graduate students. He has also taught thousands of veterinary students in virology, immunology, disease ecology, epidemiology and public health, and clinical medicine.

“When it comes to research, it’s easy to develop a narrow focus — but he’s stayed very relevant in many different areas of veterinary medicine,” Erickson says. “He often receives phone calls from small animal practitioners to large animal practitioners to pharmaceutical companies — [all] looking for help or guidance.”

While awards aren’t the motivation for his pursuits, Ellis is proud to be the first WCVM faculty member to receive the ACVM honour.

“The record of publication and discovery is the main part of my work, so awards aren’t really the objective. But it is nice to have the recognition of my career contributions and I’m proud of it at that level.”

Click here to read the ACVM award citation.