In Memoriam: 2020 President Joel Breman

Posted 18 April 2024

The Society mourns the loss of 2020 President Joel G. Breman, MD, DTPH, FIDSA, FASTMH, who passed away April 6 in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and helped steer the Society through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. He was a dedicated leader in the smallpox eradication program, a pioneer in the discovery of the Ebola virus, and was part of the global fight to control and eliminate malaria, among many other scourges. He later turned his attention to the threat of fake drugs in global health, serving as a co-editor of the 2015 Journal supplement The Global Pandemic of Falsified Medicines: Laboratory and Field Innovations and Policy Implications.

"Knowing Joel during his time as a member of ASTMH and later working side-by-side with him as President, was a professional and personal pleasure," said Karen A. Goraleski, CEO of ASTMH 2010-2023. "As the pandemic unfolded, he was the right President at the right time. He had a clear understanding of the seriousness of the pandemic and, without any naivete, radiated calm and assurances that we would weather this global calamity. He knew just how much direction to offer and was always ready with a thank you for work that was often invisible to others. We are all a little better off for being in Joel’s expansive orbit."

► Read Dr. Breman's obituary

► View an article by NPR about Dr. Breman's life

► Read The New York Times obit for Dr. Breman
► Watch Dr. Breman's Presidential Address in 2020

Tribute from Dr. Rick Steketee

The following is an edited tribute read during Dr. Breman's memorial service April 9 by longtime friend and colleague Rick Steketee, MD, MPH, FASTMH, an ASTMH member. 

"Let me begin by saying how honored I am to have the opportunity to say a few words about Joel and his professional life – especially for the many people who deeply admired Joel and are here today, but also to those whose lives he touched but cannot be here today.

"We first met in 1985. Upon completing my CDC  Epidemic Intelligence Service training, the same program Joel had completed a number of years before me, I landed a permanent position in CDC in the Malaria Branch with Joel as my supervisor. I had the joy of working directly with him over the next approximately seven years, but our professional and personal friendship has flourished for nearly 40 years.
Dr. Breman and wife, Vicki, at the 2019 Annual Meeting

"Joel’s family summarized many of Joel’s professional accomplishments and I wanted to share my personal perspective and highlight the remarkable impact and reach of Joel’s long career.

"In medicine and public health, the impact of our work is often measured by our publications in professional journals. Joel had nearly 140 published papers – an impressive number by anyone’s standard, especially given the influential journals that published his work: New England Journal of Medicine, Lancet, Journal of Infectious Diseases, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization and the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.  He wrote book chapters that guide the medicine and public health practice around the world and edited textbooks that influenced the practice of infectious disease control and elimination, especially in low-resource countries.  He started medical writing in 1970 and published his most recent paper late last year.  Fifty-plus years of writing. Oxford University Press will soon publish his book,  The Principles and Practice of Disease Eradication – the culmination of much of Joel’s life work.  He did all this work with so many different people and on so many different topics. 

'Truly Remarkable Career'

"The number and diversity of diseases that Joel tackled was truly remarkable. Early in his career, he controlled an outbreak of botulism in Michigan. Given his experience and skills, CDC soon moved him to west Africa to help in the eradication of smallpox. And in the midst of helping to rid the world of smallpox, he found himself in Zaire investigating an unknown but newly recognized outbreak of hemorrhagic fever with very high fatality – the disease that we know today as Ebola.  With Joel’s smarts and knack for collaboration, CDC moved him to Geneva to be the Deputy Chief of the WHO smallpox unit and participate in much of the work that led to the certification of smallpox eradication in 1980.  Not bad for your first decade in public health – serving in a leading position in the eradication of a global disease and a leading position in the discovery of  a brand new and highly fatal infection! My hat is off to Joel’s wife Vicki and children Johanna and Matthew for their travel around the world (experiences that forever changed their lives) to support Joel’s important work.
Dr. Breman giving 2019 President   Dr. Chandy John one of his trademark malaria ties
"He started medical writing in 1970 and published his most recent paper late last year.  Fifty-plus"He returned to CDC in Atlanta and took a position in the revived Malaria Branch and served as Deputy Chief responsible for the epidemiology and field work . He mentored many young scientists (like me) in the exploration of the parasite, vector, human and health systems aspects of malaria.  While Joel was an expert in infectious diseases and their clinical, epidemiologic and microbiologic features, his greatest passion and talent was focused on building the health systems to reach the disenfranchised.  He was a patient devoted teacher and loved being with enthusiastic young people with fresh ideas. As a leader, he never micromanaged but offered support that encouraged our motivation.  

"As one of his mentees, I will never forget his thoughtful council.  We were headed to a meeting at WHO in Geneva.  He said, “You will be in meetings with a lot of smart people with good ideas.  The ideas that will win the day will be the ones that you put on paper in advance. That will allow you to be clear with yourself about those ideas and it will allow others to read, ruminate and make them better.”  

"Joel recognized that his contributions were always part of a team effort, and he took the greatest pride in reducing cases of disease, not in personal fame or recognition.  His own history with disease eradication and new disease detection gave him a unique perspective and allowed him to carry that to realistic enthusiasm and hope for malaria eradication, as well as for other disease eradication: Guinea worm, onchocerciasis, polio, measles and others. 

"Joel loved life and cared about people – his family, his professional colleagues and those disenfranchised and in need – especially young children and citizens in Africa.  

"Collaboration was his compass and his work in public health programs and research involved colleagues around the world.  He was always eager to listen and learn from each person he met, regardless of their status or role in the play.  He was equally comfortable speaking with an African Minister of Health, a global leader on a specific disease, a class of public health students, the bus driver or the custodian in his office building, or the parking attendant at the hotel.  Joel did that every day.

Loving, devoted husband, father and grandfather

"Amidst his very busy professional life, Joel was still a loving, devoted husband, father and grandfather.  Somehow, he still found time for his love of music, travel, meeting people and sharing stories – lots of stories. 

"As we face Joel’s death, I am reminded of one paper he collaborated on about the value of death certificates – wow, who writes about death certificates?  As a compassionate physician and human being, Joel knew that the life of each person on Earth was precious and deserved respect and honor.  His paper reflected his life as a scientist when he wrote that the death certificates provided “precious sources of knowledge to understand the workings of diseases that still haunt us.”  And his life of compassion wrote, “These documents are a testimony to a person’s life” and “societies that create registration systems of their citizens also provide something literally transcendental to each individual – a lasting record of their existence.”

"Joel, thank you for touching my life and the lives of so many others with your wisdom, optimism and talent.  Our world is a better and healthier place because of you."