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Memory of Joel Breman

April 9, 2024

This photo shows Joel Breman speaking into a podium microphone. Photo courtesy ASTMHDr. Joel Breman speaks at the 2021 American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) meeting. Breman was president of ASTMH in 2020.

By Acting Fogarty Director Dr. Peter Kilmarx

It is with a heavy heart but fond memories that I reflect on the life of our esteemed colleague, Dr. Joel Breman, who passed in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on April 6. Joel, a beloved member of the Fogarty community, was born in Chicago in 1936 and grew up in Los Angeles where he excelled as student body president and a football player.

Joel completed his undergraduate studies at UCLA—where he was president of his fraternity and rowed varsity crew—in the late 1950s, and then embarked on a unique path, serving as an artillery officer before pursuing his medical education at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. His commitment to global health emerged early on when he joined the CDC-supported global smallpox program, stationed in Guinea. There, he worked tirelessly to eradicate smallpox and combat measles across West and Central Africa.

Joel's thirst for knowledge led him to further training in infectious diseases at the Harvard Medical Service at Boston City Hospital and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Armed with a diploma in tropical pediatric hygiene (DTPH), he delved into epidemiological research in francophone countries, focusing on childhood immunizations and the immuno-depressive effect of malaria.

In 1976, Joel's expertise was called for during the response to the first epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Subsequently, he assumed several significant roles at the WHO in Geneva, overseeing the certification of smallpox eradication and pioneering research on human mpox.

This photo shows Joel Breman taking blood from a woman in Brazzaville, Congo, in 1978. Two children and a man observe. Photo courtesy Joel BremanBreman, right, takes blood from a patient in Brazzaville, Congo, in 1978.

Returning to the CDC in 1980, Joel spearheaded efforts to combat malaria, expanding the Malaria Branch's reach and impact in Africa. Under his leadership, the branch flourished, conducting pivotal research that informed national and international control guidelines.

In 1993, Joel embarked on a new chapter of his career becoming the associate director of the National Vaccine Program Office in Washington, D.C., before joining the Fogarty International Center two years later. At Fogarty, Joel's leadership was transformative, establishing research programs focused on emerging infectious diseases and furthering global health initiatives.

Even in his emeritus years, Joel remained dedicated to his passion for epidemiology and disease eradication. He collaborated on epidemiological research, defining the burden of malaria and the pervasiveness of poor-quality drugs. He also taught a course on disease control at the George Washington University's School of Public Health, served as president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), and consulted for the WHO, the Carter Center, the Gates Foundation, USAID, FDA, and the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria. He was also co-chair of the WHO International Commission for the Certification of Dracunculiasis Eradication and chair of an ad hoc group planning the celebration of the 40th anniversary since the World Health Assembly confirmed the eradication of smallpox. Joel has two publications forthcoming this year: his personal memoir, as well as a medical textbook from Oxford University Press, “The Principles and Practice of Disease Eradication."

Beyond his professional endeavors, Joel's life was rich with diverse interests. An avid clarinetist, writer, and adventurer, he embraced life's joys with boundless enthusiasm. From hiking the John Muir trail to summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, Joel's adventurous spirit knew no bounds.

I thoroughly enjoyed my interactions with Joel since I came to Fogarty in 2015. We had much in common, including rowing, past appointments at CDC, working in Africa, participating in responses to Ebola and other infectious diseases, writing, and mentoring the next generation of public health leaders. I often stopped by his desk to hear about his latest endeavors and remarkable stories and insights into public health events and personalities, past and present.

Photo courtesy ASTMHBreman poses with past and future ASTMH presidents at its 2019 annual meeting. From left: Karen Goraleski (then CEO of ASTMH), Chandy John (2019 president of ASTMH), Breman, Regina Rabinovich (2018), Pat Walker (2016), and Julie Jacobson (2021).

We honor a life lived with purpose, dedication, and love, rowing many global health initiatives across the finish line with long and strong strokes of the oar. Joel's legacy will continue to inspire us, guiding our efforts to create a healthier, more equitable world.

More information

Updated April 17, 2024

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