Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, pictured at his home, is founding director of CSU’s Orthopaedic Research Center. While at CSU, he has published nearly 400 articles in scientific journals, has authored or co-authored six textbooks, and has helped land more than $21 million in funding for about 200 research projects.

By Coleman Cornelius | Photo by Mary Neiberg

Make no bones about it, Dr. Wayne McIlwraith is monumental in his field. In May, the University marked the opening of the new C. Wayne McIlwraith Translational Medicine Institute, making the pioneering veterinarian the only current Colorado State University professor with a campus research facility named in his honor.

Just two months later, in what amounted to the ultimate topping-out ceremony, he accepted the 2019 Lifetime Excellence in Research Award from the American Veterinary Medical Association for his international leadership in equine arthroscopic surgery and orthopaedic medicine. McIlwraith is a University Distinguished Professor and holds the Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in Orthopaedics. He is the 14th veterinarian to earn his industry’s highest honor for research achievements; it is the latest in an extensive list of awards for his teaching, scholarship, and clinical service.

“Without a doubt, he is the recognized name in equine surgery throughout the world,” Dr. Alan Nixon, professor of orthopaedic surgery at Cornell University, wrote in support of his colleague’s honor. “The impact of Dr. McIlwraith in equine research places him in a position of extraordinary prominence. There are no equals.”

McIlwraith is best known for developing the arthroscope beyond its first application as a diagnostic tool – used to peer inside diseased and damaged joints – and into an instrument that guides less-invasive surgery to fix those problems. Starting in the late 1970s, his research in arthroscopic surgery revolutionized treatment of lameness and joint disease in horses, especially the equine athletes used for racing, jumping, dressage, cutting, and reining. Global racing fans were agog in 1985, when a thoroughbred colt named Spend A Buck won the Kentucky Derby five months after McIlwraith performed arthroscopic surgery on the horse, proving the value of his innovations on the biggest stage.

He didn’t stop at surgery. McIlwraith’s research has contributed to insights and innovations in the prevention and rehabilitation of orthopaedic problems. His recent investigations are in the burgeoning field of regenerative biological therapies, such as novel gene and stem-cell treatments, which harness the body’s own resources for healing. For this work, the Orthopaedic Research Society honored McIlwraith with the 2014 Marshall R. Urist, MD Award for cutting-edge research in tissue regeneration; he is the only veterinarian to have received the award.

“Amazingly, Wayne’s current research in gene and cell-based therapies for the treatment of osteoarthritis may eventually eclipse his arthroscopic innovations,” Dr. Steven Arnoczky, a distinguished professor emeritus at Michigan State University, wrote of McIlwraith.

His work is significant well beyond the horse: The equine musculoskeletal system is remarkably similar to that in people, so many of McIlwraith’s discoveries have contributed to improvements in human orthopaedic medicine. With a nod to the old folk ditty, you might say he’s shown the knee bone is connected to the stifle bone. In fact, medical discoveries relevant to both animals and people, known as “translational medicine,” are at the heart of the new Translational Medicine Institute.

The $73 million facility was funded primarily with donations from philanthropists John and Leslie Malone and Princess Abigail K. Kawananakoa of Hawaii. Not surprisingly, these major donors are horse breeders interested in human medicine.