November 17, 2008
A Tribute to Frank Polk
Hopkins infectious diseases specialist John Bartlett clearly remembers the day in 1982 when his friend and colleague, epidemiologist Frank Polk, walked into his office and announced that he had decided to change the direction of his career.
Polk told him that he planned to focus on something called Gay-related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID). Reports of the baffling illness were circulating in the medical community, Bartlett recalled at an October 22 Bloomberg School tribute to Polk, an Epidemiology professor at the School who died of a brain tumor in 1988 at age 46.
“He said, ‘I’m going to pursue this disease,’" Bartlett told the audience of about 200. “I said ‘What disease? There’s seven patients.’”
Polk’s response “stuck to me like glue,” said Bartlett, MD, professor and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Epidemiology professor at the Bloomberg School. “He said, ‘This is going to be a big one.’”
GRID was soon renamed AIDS.
Early on, Bartlett said, Polk recognized the need for epidemiological research on the initially mysterious disease and by the late 1980s had become an internationally acclaimed leader in AIDS research.
Dean Michael J. Klag, MD, MPH; Epidemiology professors Alvaro Munoz, PhD, and Jonathan Samet, MD, MS; Polk’s daughter Sarah Polk, MD, MSc, and others joined Bartlett in sharing remembrances of the scientist and physician. The stories illustrated Polk’s humor, compassion and drive, as well as his talent for being two steps—or four—ahead of everyone else.
Polk, who was also a professor at the School of Medicine, was among the first to study the heterosexual transmission of AIDS, and transmission among intravenous drug users, recipients of screened blood, prison inmates, and mothers and their unborn children.
“It was amazing to inaugurate studies of that size for a disease just getting off the starting block,” said Bartlett, recalling how Polk pushed Hopkins’ top administrators to aggressively pursue millions in AIDS research dollars, an effort that established Hopkins as a leading AIDS research center.
“Nobody had as much devotion to this as he did. Once he got hold of something he would not let go” said Bartlett. “He brought this institution’s attention to AIDS.”
Born in the central Texas town of San Angelo, Polk graduated from the University of Texas in 1963 and earned his medical degree from Baylor University in 1967. Howard "Bud" Frazier, MD, who attended both schools with Polk, spoke of his friend’s brilliance as a scientist and of his compassion as a humanitarian, recalling Polk’s public support of the civil rights movement.
“In 1962 he wore a symbol on his jacket of black and white hands clasped in a handshake,” Frazier said. “In 1962, in Texas, nobody had the courage to do that except Frank.”
Polk earned a master of science degree in epidemiology from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1976, and two years later was named an assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard. He made the move in 1982 to the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.
Polk founded two pioneering studies on AIDS in the 1980s: the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS) and the AIDS Link to Intravenous Drug Experience (ALIVE), which, more than two decades later, continue to produce cutting edge research about the disease.
Lisa Jacobson, ScD, principal investigator of the MACS’ Data and Analytical Coordinating Center, joined Polk’s research team in 1987, a year before his death. “He was finally getting results out of the data,” she said. “He loved seeing the data talk to him.”
Jacobson recalled that Polk encouraged her to continue his research on Kaposi’s sarcoma, a condition in which lesion-like tumors appear on the skin, lungs or other internal organs that was predominant in gay men in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
“He brought me a blue folder and said, ‘I’m passing the torch to you, Lisa,’” said Jacobson, who carried out Polk’s wish with her research on the epidemiology of Kaposi’s sarcoma. She said that MACS’ current research priorities include the long-term effects of HAART therapy and aging with HIV.
Jacobson added that MACS’ invaluable data sets have served as the foundation for courses at medical and public health schools.
“Frank Polk told me, 'This will be the most important work you’ll ever be involved in,'” she said. “And it has been.”
In honor of Polk, the School’s Department of Epidemiology has established the B. Frank and Kathleen Polk Faculty Support Endowment Fund. Income from the Fund will be used to support junior faculty within the Department who show great promise for future contributions to public health.
To contribute, go to www.jhsph.edu/Polk. –Jackie Powder