University of Rochester

Educational Tradition Passed Through Four Generations

May 1, 1998

You have to wonder about "friendly ghosts" at commencement when Henry Clay Vedder III graduates from the University of Rochester. Not only is the biology major the fourth generation in his family to attend the school, but he's graduating exactly 100 years after his grandfather did.

Two years ago Clay, as he's called, left Georgia Southern University to pursue his studies in biology and science. The University of Rochester beckoned with the strength of its programs as well as his family's own choices in education for more than a century.

Henry Clay Vedder I earned his undergraduate degree at Rochester before pursuing doctoral studies in theology and church history. His son, Edward Bright Vedder, graduated from the University in 1898 and went on to become a renowned medical researcher. Edward's son, Henry Clay Vedder II, studied in Rochester, then completed his medical studies at George Washington University. And now Clay, who's from Leesburg, Va., has continued the family tradition in education.

He's come across subtle reminders of the family ties that reach back through the University's history. One summer he lived in the Theta Chi fraternity house where his father had pledged. And at the Medical Center where Clay worked, he was struck by the familiarity of photographs on a wall near the administration offices. Scrutinizing the prints, he realized he knew exactly what they were: pictures of the laying of the cornerstone for the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1924.

"My grandfather (Edward) was the speaker at those ceremonies," Clay explains. "I have a picture at home that shows him with University President Rush Rhees as the cornerstone was placed."

Edward Bright Vedder was a medical pioneer whose presence underscored the Medical Center's commitment to research. Commissioned in the Army in 1903, he studied the causes of beriberi while on duty in the Philippines and showed that it was a vitamin deficiency disease. He isolated Vitamin B and introduced it into patients' diets with dramatic life-saving results. Colonel Vedder's work on scurvy led to the discovery of the vitamin ascorbic acid. He also did research on leprosy, syphilis, dysentery, and whooping cough.

A renowned medical educator as well, Edward Bright Vedder commanded the Army Medical School and was a professor of experimental medicine at George Washington University. He convinced his son Henry, who was at the University of Rochester, to do his own medical studies in the nation's capital. Father and son became teacher and student.

"My father said that my grandfather made it harder on him than on his other students," Clay recalls. "And he wouldn't grade my father's papers -- he gave them to others to review."

Henry Clay Vedder II followed in his father's military and medical footsteps, but focusing on clinical medicine rather than research. A general surgeon, he landed on Omaha Beach with the medical evacuation hospital three days after D-Day, and was with the unit that liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. He traveled with General Patton's army throughout Europe during World War II, and served in Korea as well. He was chief of ophthalmology at Tokyo Hospital in Japan, served with the Surgeon General's office, and had a private practice in Leesburg, Va., after retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Henry Clay Vedder II died in 1989.

Now his son Clay is wrapping up his University of Rochester experience, committed to the heritage passed down by his grandfather and father. Besides his work on research projects in osteoporosis and prostate cancer, Clay was a volunteer in the orthopedic clinic at Strong Memorial Hospital and shadowed other physicians.

Though he's been involved in a number of community service projects, "Essentially, I have dedicated myself toward pursuing medicine and spent most of my time studying and working," he confesses. He'll be working for a pharmaceutical company in Washington, D.C., after graduation while pursuing medical school options; an Army medical scholarship awaits him to help him complete his dreams.

At the University's commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 17, Clay will be applauded by his mother, Martha Vedder Cullinane, and stepfather, John Cullinane, of Leesburg, and his two older sisters, Martha Poulin and Melissa Murray. And, perhaps, three generations of proud Vedders smiling from above.