The Adventures of a Female Medical Detective, by Mary Guinan, is a wonderful story about smallpox eradication. It is a lovely complimentary read to House On Fire (which I also wrote a review about).
Early in her career, Dr. Mary Guinan worked as a doctor and epidemiologist for the World Health Organization. Her work coincided with the smallpox eradication efforts in India and Pakistan. Her efforts involved interviewing patients and contacts of patients, pleading with local leaders to allow work to happen in their communities, and tracking down every case of small pox in the most remote corners of India. She tells a charming story about trying to get her budget for her elephant-feed approved. Indeed, a wealthy Indian man turned up with an elephant and an elephant-driver to expedite her work. The elephant, not the man, could easily cross rivers and slug all of their equipment.
Her career progressed. Over time she cared for patients living with HIV, worked in a Pakistani refugee camp, and became the go-to for all questions and concerns related to herpes. My favorite antidote is when “Dr. Condom”, as she was known, was asked in 1978 about the risk of getting HIV from a toilet seat. She responded: “The only way I know of that you can get AIDS from a toilet seat is if you sit down on it before someone else gets up.” She was on fire.
My take on Mary Guinan’s book:
I enjoyed this book, I did. I wished for more details in it and more about decision-making processes and, frankly, details of her life. She is a remarkable person by all accounts. Becoming a doctor when only 10% in the field were women, winning the jackpot to become one of the 45 to land a spot in the CDCs Epidemic Intelligence Service, rejection after rejection for her applications to study chemistry because she’s a woman. Yet, when it comes to her life and her ability to overcome adversity, the book fell flat. Many of the chapters left me wanting more, to learn more, or to relate to her more.
Is it worth a read? Yes, especially since it is short, funny, and entertaining. Well, at least as entertaining as a book about an epidemiologist can be.