Aug 042009
Authors: Madeline Novey

In November 1984, Wayne McIlwraith flew to Florida to surgically remove several bones from an injured athlete’s knee.

The athlete required several weeks to recover and train, but in March was able to get back on his feet, or hooves rather, and onto the racetrack.

Watching the race on TV from his Colorado home, McIlwraith saw that athlete, his patient, a —3-year-old colt named Save a Buck, win the Kentucky Derby by six lengths.

And that is what McIlwraith, a CSU professor and director of the CSU Equine Orthopaedic Research Center, does. He saves horses, or athletes as he calls them, that have suffered joint injuries, chips in their leg bones and injuries to their cartilage.

But McIlwraith, who will celebrate 30 years at CSU next month and was one of three professors honored in April with the University Distinguished Professor award, didn’t always know this is what he wanted to do.

“I didn’t see me doing this at your age,” McIlwraith says in his New Zealand accent, smiling from behind his rectangular glasses. “You sort of meander through life, directed by fate.”

He didn’t horse around

McIlwraith learned to both love and ride horses while vacationing at his aunt’s sheep ranch as a child. It was then too, he says, that he began to fancy becoming a country veterinarian after watching local vets tend to his aunt’s animals.

In the summer of 1966, McIlwraith was accepted to both medical and veterinary schools.

Not knowing which path to take, McIlwraith visited his mother at a hospital in Oamaru, New Zealand, when she had her gallbladder removed.

“I saw a lot of sick people there,” he says, holding a cup of black coffee. “And that’s what did it.”

After practicing in England for two years to make money for a mountaineering trip in the European Alps, McIlwraith met someone who asked him what he wanted to do. He replied, “Well, I’d like to do horse surgery.”

His career took off from there.

After a one-year internship at the University of Guelph, McIlwraith went on to complete his surgical residency and Ph.D. at Purdue University from 1975 to 1979.

It was there that McIlwraith learned to operate on a human knee from David Van Sickle, an anatomist who had completed research on dogs with arthritis and adapted those clinical techniques to horses. And this makes him a pioneer.

“I don’t want to say I was a visionary, but I had an inkling,” McIlwraith says.

Shortly after those explorations, McIlwraith published a book about research on tissue development in diseased horse knees. Since then, he has authored and co-authored five textbooks, not including updated editions, on topics including arthroscopic surgery on horses, or the process of looking into a joint with a camera and the welfare of horses.

‘The Godfather of

orthopaedic research’

Laurie Goodrich, an assistant professor in Equine Surgery and Lameness and one of McIlwraith’s colleagues in the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine, says McIlwraith was her “first and greatest” inspiration for coming to CSU in April of 2005.

McIlwraith spoke to Goodrich’s class at the University of Illinois in 1984. Goodrich, who says McIlwraith was “the godfather of orthopaedic surgery” at the time, called her parents that night after his presentation and said, “This is what I want to do.”

She says McIlwraith has “really built up the research and clinical aspects” of the ORC after he took over as its director 15 years ago.

Today, Goodrich collaborates with McIlwraith and other ORC researchers to study gene therapy as a means to regenerate cartilage in a horse’s knee after it suffers the degenerating effects of an accident, or most commonly, arthritis.

Short term, those at the ORC working specifically with gene therapy, would like to see their research treat horses with osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that is caused by the breakdown and eventual loss of the cartilage in the joints. Cartilage is a protein substance that serves as a cushion between the bones of the joints, according to

Long term, these scientists want to produce a model to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, the swelling of the joint lining that can result in a loss of movement, in humans. Both McIlwraith and Goodrich say horse anatomy closely resembles that of a human, making research of one applicable to the other.

Riding into the future

McIlwraith says he hasn’t started to slow down, in work or life.

Until he retires at a currently undetermined time, he will continue to operate on horses, conduct his research and acquire research funding for his primary staff of seven full-time employees and dozens of veterinary, graduate and undergraduate employees.

Four out of the seven full-time employees are endowed chairs, which means that they receive regular funding to continue their research. But with the recession, they have seen fewer dollars.

But nobody’s work has struggled, he says, because of grants.

In addition to gene therapy, the team is researching biomarkers, indications in the blood to detect fractures in the bone before they occur.

Biomarkers, among all of his long-term goals for the ORC are coming to fruition, McIlwraith says.

Someday when he retires, McIlwraith will have his wife Nancy Goodman McIlwraith, a retired veterinarian, and his 12 horses to go home to, and his “24-hour life” will take another form.

But as he says, he’s the perfect example of fate, and anything could happen. Had his life happened any other way, had he met anyone other than the people he did, his life would be different.

News Managing Editor Madeline Novey can be reached at

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