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Book Report

The Medical Detective

By Bret McCabe

Portrait by Tina Berning

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS

Mary Guinan, PhD, MD
public health

The elephant helped. When Mary Guinan was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fieldworker participating in the World Health Organization’s Smallpox Eradication Program in 1975, she worked in northeast India. She and local assistants would find cases and vaccinate anybody in a 10-mile radius. This village-to-village process was slowed, though, whenever they had to cross a river with supplies. Fortunately, an affluent local man showed up one day and provided them more dependable transportation: a swimming elephant.

This anecdote is but a three-page chapter in Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS (Johns Hopkins University Press), but it’s emblematic of Guinan’s streamlined focus in this memoirlike career snapshot. Guinan, a 1972 graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, grew up in New York and wanted to be a doctor when few women were. She got to med school via chemistry and physiology, and she discovered that it was the fight against infectious diseases that excited her most.

Adventures chronicles Guinan’s work on AIDS and HIV from 1982 into the 1990s, a period fraught with ignorance and fear for both the disease and the people—overwhelmingly gay men—it killed. Guinan shows how advances in knowledge impacted social attitudes and patients’ lives over time. Her smallpox experience revealed just how powerful public health could be. “I doubt I would have considered such a career had it not been for those idealists who conceived of the worldwide Smallpox Eradication Program, convinced world leaders that it was important, worked tenaciously to ensure the effort was successful, and gave people like me the chance to participate. I had found something to believe in.”

“It’s true that many good people came together to help relieve the suffering of gay men during those times. But what could they do to relieve the invisible but real wounds caused by blatant and unforgiving hatred? Years after their sons died of AIDS, mothers have told me how they will never forgive themselves for abandoning their children during the time of their greatest need.”

The Mechanical Horse

Margaret Guroff

Guroff, a Johns Hopkins alum, surveys nearly 200 years of the bicycle in the United States, touching on its waxing and waning popularity, the role the vehicle played in paving streets in the 19th century, and its later use for recreation. Guroff argues that even if the bike did not independently modernize American medicine, its impact on fitness likely accelerated the shift.


Gregory T. Whitman and Robert W. Baloh

A detailed look at one of the most common and complex medical complaints. Anyone who has experienced the sensation of the room spinning or the lightheadedness that signals an impending faint knows how bad it feels to be dizzy. Here, an otoneurologist and a neurologist describe the types of dizziness they see most frequently and explain what people can do to feel better.

Making Sense of Medicine

Zackary Berger

A Johns Hopkins internist seeks to broadly balance the science of medicine and evidence-based guidelines with the choices that patients want. Berger promotes a patient-centered route to care that emphasizes the benefits and risks that accompany any medical action, the limits of biomedical science, and excesses in health care such as testing and prescribing.

5 Picks

Matthew Klam

Matthew Klam

Matthew Klam is author of The New York Times Notable Book Sam the Cat. He teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

Laughter is the best medicine, the saying goes. Matthew Klam offers his funny book picks.

  1. The Sellout

    Paul Beatty
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
  2. Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

    Maria Semple
    Little, Brown and Company (2013)
  3. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

    Roz Chast
    Bloomsbury (2014)
  4. Leaving the Atocha Station

    Ben Lerner
    Coffee House Press (2011)
  5. Dear Committee Members

    Julie Schumacher
    Anchor (2015)

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