In Her Memoir, Disease Detective Dr. Mary Guinan Tells How She Fought Bias — And Stupid Questions : Goats and Soda In a new memoir, Dr. Mary Guinan reflects on 40 years as a disease detective for the CDC.

The Epidemiologist Who Crushed The Glass Ceiling And Media Stupidity

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Now let's hear from someone at the other end of a career in science. Dr. Mary Guinan spent decades traveling around on the world trying to track the source of disease outbreaks working for the Centers for Disease Control. She called herself a medical detective, and she explains what that is.

MARY GUINAN: A medical detective is an epidemiologist. An epidemiologist is someone who studies the health of populations and tries to use the data collected to prevent and control diseases.

MARTIN: Dr. Guinan investigated the illnesses of some of the first AIDS patients during her 20-year career at the CDC. Dr. Guinan's new memoir showed up in the mail just as the world was turning its attention to another disease outbreak. We called her in Reno, Nev., where she lives now. Her memoir is called "Adventures Of A Female Medical Detective." And I started by asking her what attracted her to the field.

GUINAN: I read about this wonderful new program to eliminate smallpox in the world. This would be the first time in history that a disease would be eradicated from the world by the design of people. I want to be part of that.

So the people volunteering for the smallpox eradication program were at CDC and most of them came out of this program called the Epidemic Intelligence Service. So I applied to be an EIS officer, and I was accepted into the class of 1974. I was the only woman physician in a class of 39 physicians and then volunteered for the smallpox eradication program and eventually got accepted and went to India.

MARTIN: Some of the pages that I think Americans will recognize was from those early days of the AIDS outbreak. I mean, one of the things that I found fascinating was you were working with the sexually-transmitted diseases unit. And do you feel that there was still kind of a stigma to that work because it was hard to talk to people about it?

GUINAN: Well, I can tell you that it was very unusual for a woman to be working in the area of sexually-transmitted diseases. People would say to me why are you doing that? Why would you do that? But I told you about my mother and how in the book about my mother and how she found out what I was doing. She knew I was working at CDC. But she didn't know I was working in sexually-transmitted diseases.

And so I was asked to be interviewed by "60 Minutes," and I refused to go on there because I just thought it would be another sort of crazy interview where people would be accusing me of doing something that perhaps was a little off-base for a physician. And so the head of CDC called me, and he said well, I think you should think that over again. So I said I would go on, and then I told my mother I was going to be on "60 Minutes." I knew the date - you know, it was six weeks ahead.

And I started really worrying and started sweating about - not what "60 Minutes" might do to me but what my mother would think. And I didn't know if they were going to say well, the opening question is Dr. Guinan, what venereal disease would you least like to have - and went downhill from there.


GUINAN: And after the show, I got a phone call from my mother. And she says congratulations dear, your hair looked very nice.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Well, that's wonderful...

GUINAN: It was wonderful.

MARTIN: ...'Cause...

GUINAN: She said go girl, as far as I was concerned. And so after that, if my 70-something-year-old mother could deal with my working as a sexually-transmitted disease expert, I didn't really care what anyone else thought.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad you brought that up because one of the interesting things about the book is your low opinion of the news media. You talk about, for example, the day that one of the cable networks called to ask your opinion about the controversy involving the women workers at - an insurance company in Chicago were picketing the company because they had to use a bathroom with only one toilet and the women believed that one of their co-workers had AIDs. And they were convinced that they were at risk of contracting AIDS from using this bathroom. Do you remember what you said?

GUINAN: Yes, I do. I said - Dr. Guinan, Dr. Guinan, are you sure that you can't get AIDS from a toilet seat? And I said the only way that I know of you can get AIDS from a toilet seat is if you sit down on it before someone else gets up.

MARTIN: And you said that you never saw the news clip but a lot of people did. A colleague once said that that line would be your epitaph. You think that's true? I remember it.


MARTIN: I confess...


MARTIN: ...That I do remember it, so...

GUINAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: When it was all said and done though, I mean, did you see some similarities between your work overseas and the way sometimes people would react in this country to word of an epidemic?

GUINAN: Yes, I think that there's a great misunderstanding of how epidemics occur and how they're controlled. The - public health is a specialty that deals with this. And I think the public really doesn't understand it our value it very well, which is why I wrote the book and why I geared to the general public because I hoped that people would understand better our public health system in the United States and how it works to prevent disease and promote health.

I loved working at CDC. It was just such a wonderful place to be. There were people there that you just would not believe. They were so dedicated. And they didn't - had no fear and going to all parts of the world and investigating terrible outbreaks and trying to get them under control.

MARTIN: Were you ever afraid?

GUINAN: I wrote about it in the book. I received an AIDS needle stick at one point in my life, and then eventually I thought I had AIDS. But fortunately, I did not. I used to be afraid of talking about being a sexually-transmitted disease expert. Can you imagine?

I used to say I can clear a room by saying I'm from the venereal disease control division and people would just run away. When I spoke to anyone about - that I worked in AIDS, people would take - in the early days might take two steps backwards. You know, when I said to myself if that's what's happened, that's what's happened. You know, that's the choice I made.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, I want to mention that you have a long career at the Center for Disease Control. And then you went to become a state health officer and a professor. What would you want your career - your epitaph to be?

GUINAN: I'm not sure. Let's see - maybe she was right about public health.

MARTIN: That'll work.


MARTIN: Dr. Mary Guinan's new memoir is called "Adventures Of A Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit Of Smallpox And AIDS." She was with us from Reno, Nev., where she's also professor emerita from UNLV. Dr. Guinan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GUINAN: You're welcome.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.