English Equine Specialist Living His American Dream

Q&A with large animal veterinary surgeon Carl Kirker-Head
an Englishman with grey hair standing next to a horse in front of a barn. He's wearing a white dress shirt and black blazer.
A Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine faculty member since 1987, Carl Kirker-Head serves as vice president of the University Faculty Senate. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Carl Kirker-Head (he/him)
Marilyn M. Simpson Chair in Equine Medicine
Professor of Surgery and Associate Chair, Department of Clinical Sciences
Large Animal Veterinary Surgeon, Hospital for Large Animals

What is your hometown and/or where did you spend your adolescent years?
I grew up in the small English village of Storrington, some 50 miles south of London. Born into an equestrian family, I trained and competed horses regionally and successfully under my mum’s watchful eye. With 799 other boys, I attended a boarding school established in 1552 by King Edward VI and, while not a strong academic (my middle school headmaster once wrote on my report card that I was ‘not a bright boy’), with some fortitude, I was accepted to the University of Cambridge to follow in my uncle’s footsteps as a veterinarian. My free time was consumed with my work as a gardener and house painter, and with travel, predominantly in North America which drew me to it with its promise of adventure and bounty.  

What inspired you to become an educator or researcher? 
Fully investing myself in the American dream and moving to the United States really drove me. My decision to specialize in large animal surgery was both serendipitous and deliberate. I liked anesthesia equally as well and interviewed for a residency with Tufts Professor of Surgery ‘Bud’ Fackelman during a scientific convention in Las Vegas. When he asked which specialty I preferred, I quickly answered “I just love surgery.” Within the year I was in North Grafton and living my dream. 

Initially, I focused on achieving clinical excellence, but increasingly I enjoyed the challenge of pre-clinical orthopedic research and found a niche as an industry-funded investigator, developing and testing the safety and efficacy of exciting new drugs and medical devices intended for humans but trialed in animals. Strangely, while as an educator I enjoyed clinical discourse, public speaking and publishing, the didactic teaching of students was initially less of a priority. 

What do you most enjoy about working at Cummings School?
I enjoy the shared community spirit and common cause; the physical beauty of the campus which is so conducive to learning, introspection, and academic excellence; our proximity to major medical centers, the biotech industry, and two beautiful cities with transportation hubs; the shared variety of things I do as an academic and a surgeon; the genuine interest my co-faculty and administration colleagues take in me; and the realization that the grass is not greener anywhere else.

What is your passion (professionally and/or personally)? 
My professional passion is to make significant and lasting contributions to academic veterinary medicine through the practice of clinical excellence with my patients and trainees, through research innovation, and by challenging the conventional wisdoms of our profession and our workplace. My personal passions are to see my children thrive in everything they do and to enjoy this with my wife, Mona. Fortunately, all these things commonly involve my other principal passion – international travel – so I’m a very lucky guy.  

What might someone be surprised to learn about you?
I have ridden Greyhound buses to all the lower 48 States.

Can you tell us about your pets? 

Though not all ours, my wife and I and our three wonderful employees typically care for 20–25 horses each day at our boarding and rehab farm in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Vaguely trying to assist us in this task are our two Antipodean cattle and sheep dogs, Rebel and Diesel. Two cats, Tar and Katie, control the entire operation from our finished basement.