Alumni Profile: Dr. Mary Guinan

Dr. Mary Guinan, MD, PhD, never set out to work in public health. She came to UTMB in 1964 hoping to become a scientist for NASA’s astronaut program, and if not for the gender barriers of the 1960s she just might have achieved that goal.

Instead, Dr. Guinan took a different path, with several unplanned twists and turns. That missed opportunity to enter the U.S. space program eventually led her to India in 1975 where she served on the frontlines as part of the worldwide eradication of smallpox. She later helped uncover the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s; and she was the first woman to serve as chief scientific advisor at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). She calls her career "inadvertent," but it certainly wasn’t uneventful.

Much to her surprise, Dr. Mary Guinan, MD, PhD, became well
known for her expertise in STDs
Today, she’s the founding Dean at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Community Health Sciences and has been one of the most influential women in public health in the State of Nevada for more than a decade.

Dr. Guinan completed her PhD in physiology at UTMB in January 1969. Following a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) she decided to go to medical school and was accepted at Johns Hopkins. She was one of ten women in a class of 110.

Soon after completing medical school and her training in internal medicine she learned about the World Health Organization’s (WHO) smallpox eradication program. She discovered a two-year training program for epidemiologists called the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the CDC that was participating with WHO. She entered the program and asked to be assigned to the smallpox eradication effort.

She spent five months with a team in Uttar Pradesh, India, near the Nepal border, working to identify smallpox and vaccinating nearby villagers. She worked among people who had never seen a foreigner. The villages she visited had a 99 percent illiteracy rate. CDC teams gathered each month to report their progress. As they watched smallpox rates decline each month, they increased their efforts to vaccinate.

Soon after Dr. Guinan returned to the U.S. to complete her program, Uttar Pradesh reached a zero infection rate. “That experience changed my life, and I decided to go into public
health,” she says.

Shortly after that decision, she moved west for an infectious disease fellowship at the University of Utah where she became interested in the herpes virus. Here she encountered the biggest surprise of her career: becoming a sexually transmitted disease (STD) expert. It happened by accident.

After giving a talk at a conference about her studies on cold sores, she participated in a press conference about the herpes virus and was the only oral herpes expert on a panel of speakers. She answered questions from the press, assuming everyone knew she was talking about oral herpes. Later that evening she saw herself on the six o’clock news; the reporter referred to her as “Dr. Mary Guinan, expert on genital herpes infection.”

No matter what she said, no one believed her, including the University of Utah. “They were delighted to find out they had an expert on genital herpes infection,” says Dr. Guinan. They sent a television crew to meet her upon her return to campus. Calls came from all over the world from people asking for her help. She finally relented and began investigating genital herpes, focusing primarily on the infection in women since most studies on sexually transmitted diseases at that time were on men. Her work was eventually published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Guinan had become “The Herpes Expert,” a title she did her best to avoid sharing with her mother. The CDC eventually brought her back to work in their STD Unit, which was timely. She was the only virologist in the unit who was familiar with STDs and viruses in 1981, when AIDS came to light. She was part of the team that investigated the first cases of AIDS, and her role over the next several years involved AIDS research and education. In 1986, Dr. Guinan was selected as the first woman to serve as chief scientific advisor for the CDC.

A San Francisco newspaper columnist Randy Shilts often interviewed her about her work with the AIDS crisis. He eventually published a book, And the Band Played On, which included her interviews and brought Dr. Guinan even more into the public eye. The book eventually was made into a movie.

In 1998, Dr. Guinan retired from the CDC and accepted a job in Carson City as Nevada’s chief public health officer; she was the first woman to hold the position. Six years later she was approached by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to take on a leadership role at their new School of Public Health. She’d never worked in academia beyond delivering a few adjunct lectures, but the university persuaded her of their need for someone with a great deal of public health experience. What she needed to learn about academia they said she could learn on the job. She accepted the position, and today the renamed School of Community Health Sciences offers thriving programs for undergraduates, masters of public health, masters of health care administration, and PhDs in public health. Her unit is the most productive at UNLV per faculty member at bringing in external funding and publishing in peer review journals.
Dr. Mary Guinan, MD, PhD,
(4th from the right) spoke at the
GSBS Career Forum in March

In 2008, Dr. Guinan split time between her role at UNLV and her previous position as Nevada’s state health officer in order to address a Hepatitis C outbreak that exposed approximately 50,000 people to the disease. The governor had asked her to return and the president of UNLV gave his okay. While the State has recruited a new health officer, Dr. Guinan still serves as a consultant on health care associated infections.

UTMB’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) acknowledged Dr. Guinan’s successful career by presenting her with the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2001. More recently she was invited to return to campus as the keynote speaker at the GSBS Career Forum held in March 2011.

Dorian Coppenhaver, PhD, Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the GSBS, says Dr. Guinan was selected as the keynote because her career didn’t take a straight path. “I knew the shape of her career, its twists and turns, and that she’d been successful on a number of levels and different places. We thought it would be very useful for students to see that you can’t always predict exactly what you’re going to be doing in fifteen years, and they need to prepare for that eventuality,” he said.

Although she didn’t end up where she had planned, it didn’t stop her from accomplishing great things. After listening to Dr. Guinan’s keynote address Dr. Coppenhaver commented, “It was clear that this was a woman who didn’t hang her head or give up. She found a productive way to go in the side door and accomplish what she wanted to accomplish.”

Dr. Guinan says her scientific training provided her with the fundamental skills she needed to be successful. Without the principles and skills she learned at UTMB, she says it’s doubtful she would have been accepted to medical school. Her story offers hope to students concerned about a questionable economy and job market. What she wants students to remember is, “you can move into different areas if you can’t find something related to your dissertation,” says Dr. Guinan.

She admits it took her several years to accept that she couldn’t accomplish her original goal. “Of course I was disappointed, but I have a very fulfilling and very exciting career. I’ve been part of a historic event. For the first time in the history of civilization a disease was eliminated by the design of people. I was part of the first AIDS taskforce. We found the first cases of AIDS and recognized there was a problem. I had to convince others that there was something terrible happening out there. I feel that was a privilege,” she says.

Who knows what Dr. Mary Guinan would have accomplished if women had been permitted to enter the Space Program in 1969. One thing is certain, her skills and talents weren’t wasted on a lost dream. She persevered and kept looking for the next door to open. And that perseverance made all the difference.