What do you do after you have had a hand in eradicating a devastating disease from the face of the earth? Keep on going, according to Dr. Mary Guinan, because there is still plenty more work to do.
Ending smallpox during her years as an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was only the beginning of Guinan’s remarkable career. “I thought it such an unbelievably wonderful idea that, by the design of people, you could actually eliminate a disease that has harmed generations from the beginning of time,” she said.
Guinan continued as a trailblazer in public health by leading the response to the AIDS epidemic as the CDC’s spokesperson, accepting a position as the first female state health officer in Nevada, and founding the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences as its first dean.
Guinan chronicled her extraordinary adventures into one 12-chapter, 138-page book titled Adventures of a Female Medical Detective. The idea for the project stemmed from her desire to provide the general public insight into the enigma that is public health.
“I realized that many people just don’t fully understand public health,” she said. “The only time the general population really hears about it is when something goes wrong, like when there is an outbreak.”
But there is so much more to public health — and to Guinan’s newly released book. Each chapter its own story, Guinan shares her unabashedly quirky perspective of her involvement in different epidemics and their resolutions. With topics ranging from war zones in Pakistan to an HIV-infected preacher’s wife, Guinan’s book covers a lifetime’s worth of fascinating adventures.
In one of the book’s most notable stories, Guinan even reveals how she enlisted an elephant in her quest to eradicate smallpox in India.
“I would get on the elephant, and it would swim us across the river, take me to the village, and then go back and get all of the things we needed and bring them to us. Then it would take us and our supplies back across the river at the end of the day.”
But riding elephants in India was not always the Guinan lifestyle. Born into an immigrant family, she worked herself through high school, college, and even medical school. Despite her many years working in the field, the idea of being an expert still seems a bit amazing to Guinan.
“As an epidemiologist, you are among the first to encounter many diseases. You become an expert in diseases no one has ever heard about. You’re the first person to see it, so you’re the world’s expert.”
Because many detective accounts are written from the perspective of men, Guinan thought it would be interesting for people to read these stories from a woman’s point of view. As her story shows, being born female has proven to be both a blessing and a curse.
In Houston, the home of NASA, Guinan finished her doctorate with a research focus on blood coagulation. She then decided that she would enroll in the astronaut program. But luckily for the future of public health, that dream was never realized. “I was working on scientific projects related to issues in space,” said Guinan. “But in 1969 when man went on the moon, women weren’t even allowed into the control room — because they would distract the men.”
Years later as the AIDS epidemic emerged, her gender became a benefit. A member of the CDC team that first investigated the disease, she became its spokesperson, appeared in numerous national news shows, and was infamously dubbed Dr. Herpes and Dr. Condom.
“I got the nicknames because I was in the media saying things that shocked people like ‘genital herpes’ or ‘gonorrhea.’ But it sort of happened that they wanted a woman to talk about sexually transmitted diseases because it seemed more acceptable to the public than a man talking about it. It might have been an advantage for me.”
Although officially retired, Guinan continues to support the UNLV School of Community Health Sciences as faculty emerita. She is turning the royalties from the book into scholarships.
“There is a deadly shortage of epidemiologists,” she said, an issue that she hopes her gift will help solve. But Guinan hopes that her support is only the beginning. “If Tom Hanks decides to take movie rights, we hope to get a lot more money, but I haven’t negotiated that yet.”
Two additional books are in pipeline for Guinan: one on hepatitis C and another on childhood leukemia.
Visit the School of Community Health Sciences site for more information on the Adventures book.