Retrospect: Renowned veterinary surgeon Peter Joseph Patt

Mobile vet treated horses, created cure-alls for man and beast and transitioned his downtown stables to auto parking as times changed

A look at Royal Street in Mobile around 1895-1900. Note the sign for Patt’s elixir at right. Photo courtesy of Historic Mobile Preservation Society.

Peter Joseph Patt was born near Cologne, Germany, in the mid-1850s. Young Patt studied to become a veterinary surgeon and resumed that training after arriving in America in 1881. Although immigration records do not indicate his initial port of call, he passed through Alabama at some point in the 1880s. He returned some years later and enjoyed a long career as a successful and colorful Mobile businessman.  

Patt settled first in Sedalia, Missouri, a crossroads town situated at the terminus of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, whose cattle-filled carloads kept the Chicago stockyards and slaughterhouses running. It is not difficult to imagine an enterprising veterinarian finding ample work in such a place. He served as a government-appointed meat inspector and kept up an active veterinary medicine practice on the side.

An advertisement for Patt’s roving veterinary services first appeared in the Sedalia newspaper in 1889. Therein he touted his German education and years of local service, particularly in treating diseases of the eyes and teeth of livestock. Beneath his signature in these advertisements, both in Sedalia and later in Mobile, appeared the words “Deutscher Tierarzt,” or German Vet.

Patt became a naturalized American citizen on October 17, 1889.

Patt’s wife, Anna, came to America a decade before him. They were married in 1882 and had one daughter, Josephine, who was born in Sedalia. The family first appeared in the Mobile city directory in 1894. He soon became an important part of the port city’s large community of German immigrants. In October 1899, he served as marshal for Mobile’s first German Day festivities, leading a parade of 300 through the city streets. During World War I, Patt and many others endured anti-German sentiments from some Mobilians. In 1918, an anonymous letter threatening arson and violence prompted the city’s German Relief Association, of which Patt was an active member, to change its name and cease the practice of conducting its meetings in the German language. 

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An invoice issued by Dr. Patt.

In his Mobile practice, Patt specialized in treating cases of tetanus, or lockjaw, in horses. Patt’s regular advertisements in local newspapers noted his successful treatment of dozens of cases each month. It read: “Take your sick or crippled animals given up as incurable, no matter what the case may be, and be convinced as others have been.” Mobile’s editors often marveled at his successes. A 1906 article noted that, in a single week, he performed “the most skillful veterinary surgery work” on three horses, including one prized at more than $1,000 (equal to about $32,000 today). A 1907 article detailed how Patt deployed his careful surgical skills to remove a large tumor from the back leg of a mule. He was often called upon to ferret out tuberculosis, rabies and other communicable diseases in livestock herds throughout the region. In 1913, to aid in these travels to and from the south Alabama hinterland, Patt purchased a new Ford automobile. But for his house calls within the city, he continued to use his very fine horse-drawn carriage for some time thereafter. 

In December 1906, Patt announced plans to construct “the most modern veterinary hospital in the South.” The two-story structure along St. Michael Street cost more than $20,000 to build and equip. It featured an operating room and 40 large-animal stalls on the first floor. A “canine department” with kennels and Patt’s office were located above on a mezzanine. An assistant’s living quarters was located on the second floor, along with office space occupied for many years by Emil Brunnier, who was a bookbinder and publisher of the German-language newspaper Alabama Staatz-Zeitung. 

Beyond his surgical skills, Patt also dabbled in the apothecary arts. At least one of his remedies was offered as cure-all for both man and beast. He proclaimed “Dr. Patt’s X-Ray Liniment” as appropriate for the treatment of a host of maladies, including rheumatism, neuralgia, stiff joints, nail pricks and insect bites. “Kills all pain,” one ad proclaimed. “It contains the very best of Essential Oils.” Although the ingredients of Patt’s liniment were not disclosed, many tonics of the era contained a hefty amount of alcohol, along with small doses of opium, morphine and even cocaine.

As the liniment might suggest, Patt possessed a keen art for self-promotion. His advertisements over the years featured an admirable kind of confidence in his position. “Has outlasted nine veterinary surgeons during his fifteen years in Mobile,” read one ad. Atop his newly completed building was a large sign illustrating a horse’s internal organs, the kind of image that might typically be featured in a biology textbook. None who traveled Mobile’s streets could have missed the building with such an ostentatious adornment.

As modes of transportation along Mobile’s streets transitioned in the 1910s, Patt was occasionally called to aid poor hooved creatures injured by automobiles, streetcars and trains. The fast-paced modern age made few allowances for ambling horses or mules, especially in a busy city like Mobile.

And as the number of horses brought into his downtown hospital for treatment declined, Patt advertised available “automobile storage stations,” presumably transforming vacant horse stalls into garage parking. It was a business model pivot for the ages.

Anna Patt died in 1925 while the couple were visiting family in Germany. Returning to Mobile, the aging Peter Joseph Patt moved into the home of his daughter and son-in-law.

The pages of the same newspapers that once touted his veterinary prowess now chronicled the slow but inevitable end of his business. In September 1929, he put the second floor of the office up for rent. The following month, he sold his prescription counter and medicine shelves. Separate advertisements in November 1930 advertised his building as a place for automobile storage and another which read “Dr. Jos. Patt, Veterinary Surgeon; advice free.”

He continued to work in some capacity, mostly in the treatment of small animals, until October 1934. He died of heart failure in February 1935, after having worked in Mobile for more than 40 years.   

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appeared in the November 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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