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World-renowned epidemiologist Dr. Don Francis makes visit to MU

Francis known for AIDS activism and more

By Megan Zahneis, News Editor

World-renowned pediatrician and epidemiologist Dr. Don Francis, subject of the book and movie "And The Band Played On," was on campus Thursday after being invited to Oxford by junior pre-med and biology major Matt Mannion.

Francis, who is trained in epidemic control and vaccines, has studied such diseases as measles, cholera, smallpox and hepatitis B. He also directed the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Smallpox Eradication Program in Sudan and India and was part of the WHO team investigating the world's first Ebola outbreak.

But he's best known for his work as an HIV/AIDS researcher, having run the AIDS lab at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as part of his 21-year tenure there. Francis is also regarded for his activism in warning the general public of the danger and prevalence of AIDS.

That's how Mannion learned of Francis' story - by happening upon the documentary "And The Band Played On" late one night last summer, after a day in the Hughes Hall laboratories. Mannion and Francis had lunch together in San Francisco late in the summer, and Mannion came up with the idea of inviting Francis to Oxford shortly thereafter.

Rick Page, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry whose lab Mannion has worked in for two years, said Francis' visit will afford students a unique learning opportunity.

"[Francis] is a fantastic scientist and someone who, I think, would be really good for students here to meet. He did so much work in tackling epidemics outside of this country, and those are experiences and viewpoints that students here at Miami don't typically get," Page said.

But Francis' story is more than just that of an extremely successful doctor. In fact, despite coming from a medical background, Francis never intended for his career to turn out the way it has.

For one thing, Francis said, he may not have been the most practical in deciding where to study medicine.

"I went to Berkeley [for undergrad] because my girlfriend went to Berkeley. I went to Harvard [for my Ph.D] because my girlfriend went to Harvard," Francis explained during his talk Thursday night in Benton Hall. "Of course, these were two different girlfriends."

Regardless, things worked out for Francis in the end.

"People say, 'Gee, such a successful career, you've done all these things, eradicated smallpox and now you're working on Ebola, yada, yada, yada…'" Francis said. "This was not a planned-out excursion. I was a competitive downhill skier, and I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon in the mountains of California and that was the limits of my interest at the time. And then I had my first exposure to the international world with a fellowship abroad and came back and I was interested in pediatrics and infectious diseases and it changed my whole career."

But then, interestingly, it was politics that motivated him, Francis said.

Francis, who by then had his doctorate in virology from the Harvard School of Public Health, was against the Vietnam War. At the time, all doctors were being drafted to service, and Francis "refuse[d] to support that horrible adventure."

His boss at LA County Hospital suggested he join the CDC instead, since doing so would serve as an equivalent to military service.

Within two years, Francis found himself shipping off to Yugoslavia to work on the smallpox outbreak in Europe.

"I was so enthralled with having this incredibly bad disease, [that,] with a very simple vaccination, you could just take care of. I told CDC if they're ever going to do something in smallpox, let me know. And the next thing I know I was with WHO in the Sudan, India, and Bangladesh eradicating smallpox.

"To have a disease eradicated under your belt, you get hooked," Francis said.

He's chased cholera in Nigeria, encephalitis in Japan, tetanus in India, polio in Pakistan, and yet, Francis said, his biggest challenges have come at home.

Francis, 73, said he's dealt with his share of political maneuvering. After coming back to the United States to study AIDS, the Ronald Reagan administration refused to fund his research.

"Here I was, essentially trained and practiced in a way that couldn't make my ability to contribute to the society any better than [what I was doing with] AIDS," Francis said. "And I was perfectly trained and was told to look pretty and do as little as you could. That's Republicanism in central government."

That's when Francis sought out another way to study HIV, returning home to serve as an AIDS advisor to his native California.

"I just [had to] find some kind of an avenue that I can go around these doofuses that are intent on killing people," Francis said.

It's safe to say Francis has had a success.

"If I can stimulate, you know, even a handful of people to say, 'Gosh, I want to do that kind of stuff too,' then that's enough of a legacy for me for looking at the next generation," Francis said. "But, in a similar sense, if I can get rid of smallpox and hepatitis B and whatever other diseases I've worked on and they don't affect little kids around the world, that's all I want."

For Mannion, getting Francis to visit Oxford and share his experiences with the Miami community will go down as one of his own personal successes.

"As engaging as I remember him being all those months ago back in San Francisco, he was even more so here," Mannion said. "On top of that, with the students and with my friends, they felt the same magnetism of being pulled in. It was everything I thought it would be and more."