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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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The Medical Martyrs

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 25, 2012

As an afterthought, when I was writing The Species Seekers, I included a listing of people who had died in the quest to discover new species.  The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists turned out to be one of the most popular features of the book.  It’s also part of a current exhibition at The British Natural History Museum’s annex in Tring, and it’s a constant object of reader interest at this blog.  Since I posted it here early in 2011, more than 28,000 people have visited (and considerably added to) The Wall of the Dead.

Now I’m working on a new book, The Great Deliverance, about the fight to understand and treat epidemic disease.   This topic may seem like a reach for many readers who know me mainly as a writer on natural history.  But understanding disease has always been a matter of understanding that our own bodies are part of the natural world, and the natural world is part of our bodies.  We are a habitat,  though often against our will.

Many doctors, nurses, and researchers have given their lives to identifying and defeating the pathogens that have routinely killed us.  So I am now beginning to put together a new list, under the title The Medical Martyrs.  As with The Wall of the Dead, I invite readers to send me names of their colleagues, friends, loved ones, and heroes who died while working to stop epidemic disease.  I’ve drafted a few examples to get things started.  Here’s the format:

Last name, first name (year of birth-death), brief description of specialty and also of the occasion and cause of death, as well as the age at death.  Please include links to articles, obituaries, web sites, or other useful biographical material.   I’ll get your suggestions up onto the list at frequent intervals.

And here are a few examples of medical heroes who gave their lives in the quest to control epidemic disease:

Akhtar, Naseema (1977-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 35.

Bibi, Farzana (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 14

Last Name Unknown, Fahmida (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 20

Last Name Unknown, Kaniz Fatima (1992-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan,  for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 20

Last Name Unknown, Madiha (1993-2012), killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio,  age 19.

Jesse Lazear

Lazear, Jesse W. (1866-1900), a Johns Hopkins Hospital physician, joined the U.S. Army and served with Walter Reed on the commission to investigate yellow fever in Cuba.  He confirmed the theory that mosquitoes transmit the disease.  But without telling his colleagues he experimented on himself with infected mosquitoes, and died of the disease, age 34.

Matthew Lukwiya

Lukwiya, Matthew (1957-2000), medical director of a hospital in Gulu, Uganda, during an Ebola outbreak.  He was awakened when none of the other staff would touch a patient who had fallen out of bed, coughing blood.  Lukwiya put on most of his protective gear, but not a face shield to protect his eyes, and lifted the patient back into bed.  He contracted Ebola himself and died soon after, age 43.  At the funeral of a colleague in the same outbreak, he had declared, “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

 Mehsud, Umer Farooq, (1982-2012),  killed by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan, in Peshawar, Pakistan, for working with the World Health Organization to save her country from polio, age 30.

Janet Parker

Parker, Janet (1938-1978), a medical photographer at the University of Birmingham Medical School, contracted the world’s last case of smallpox and died, age 40, when improper procedures caused the release of a smallpox strain being used for research one floor below her darkroom.

Schnitker, Paul (1942-1969), a doctor who graduated from Harvard Medical School, was the only member of the Epidemic Intelligence Service, an elite branch of the Centers for Disease Control, ever to die in action.  He was traveling to serve as a medical advisor to refugee relief efforts during the Biafra civil war, but missed his scheduled flight.  The plane he caught instead from London to Lagos, Nigeria, was destroyed on landing by a bomb.   According to his brother John, “My parents believed he was killed by the very people he was sent to help.”  Schnitker was 27 years old.

4 Responses to “The Medical Martyrs”

  1. vdinets said

    I would think everybody would have been vaccinated against smallpox in1978… Why wasn’t she?

    • Good question, and I don’t know the answer. Smallpox had long since been eradicated in the developed world, and maybe it was one of those cases where people become complacent about being vaccinated for diseases they never expect to encounter.

  2. […] only have partial information on the victims, but here are the sad additions to the list of Medical Martyrs I started a few weeks ago.  Corrections or additional information are […]

  3. […] this review of the current flu season threat and the role of supplements, and researched  pioneer medical martyrs Drs Ignaz Semmelweis, Jack Drummond  and Linus Pauling  as  paradigms of the scourge of modern […]

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