Keerti Shah, MD, DrPH ’63, MPH ’57
Global Achievement Award
Professor Emeritus of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
Keerti Shah, Professor Emeritus of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a leading figure in one of the most important and wide-reaching victories in international public health—the connection between human papillomavirus (HPV) and cervical cancer. Shah joined the public health faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1962, with a joint appointment in the Department of Oncology in the School of Medicine. He began working with papillomaviruses in the late 1970s, and built and led an international research team to conduct a rigorous, case-controlled epidemiological study that showed that HPV caused 99.7% of cervical cancers. This seminal 1999 Journal of Pathology paper has been cited over 3,400 times, and the findings have had far-reaching ramifications for prevention of this deadly disease, leading to development of an HPV vaccine approved in 2006.
Shah has been a highly productive and valuable member of the Johns Hopkins community at the departmental, school, and university levels. He is a beloved mentor and served as interim chair of the Department of Pathobiology (now MMI).
Who were your most important mentors?
I met Dr. Harald Johnson at the Virus Research Center in Poona, India, when I joined the lab in 1953 after my medical training. I had no previous experience in research or lab work and had not read a single original article in science. I was the only help Dr. Johnson had, so we worked very closely together. He was a member of the Rockefeller Foundation and a world-renowned scientist. He was very kind and supportive and we had innumerable discussions about science and everything else. We worked together for about 6 months until he returned to the USA. His parting words: "I have taught you everything one person can teach another, now it is up to you." We were lifelong friends and I met with him many times in the USA.
I first met Dr. Frederik Bang when he visited our virus lab in India. When I got a Rockefeller Fellowship to go to USA for an MPH, I chose Hopkins because of JHSPH faculty Dr. Lloyd Rozeboom and Dr. Bang, who became my advisor for my DrPH degree. I joined the JHSPH Pathobiology faculty in 1963, and Dr. Bang was always interested in what I was doing. He gave advice only when asked, generally in two or three short sentences. He never asked me to do one thing or another, either in my own research or in departmental affairs. His opinions and outlook had an enormous influence on me. His intellect was vast and his great strength was as an observer of nature. I was happy that he was just a few doors away if I needed help.
Dr. Margaret Merrell's Biostatistics course and the group discussions around the table on different topics in the course were an eye-opener for me. Dr. Merrell is probably the most effective teacher in the history of JHSPH. I had done a good bit of research before I came to JHSPH, so everything in that course was great for me. In the discussion groups, Dr. Merrell would move from table to table and patiently listen to much of our faulty reasoning, would sometimes suggest a different way to look at the problem, but let us eventually find the right answer ourselves. She made every student feel important.
In the mid-1960's, early in my years on the faculty, I was most impressed with the work of Dr. R. Bradley Sack on treatment of cholera. Brad and Chuck Carpenter went to the School of Tropical Medicine in Calcutta, India for this project. They instituted treatment of cholera based on replacing rapidly what was lost (fluids, electrolytes) and reduced mortality rate from 35% to 0%. This demonstrated the power of research and action in solving a very difficult problem. Subsequently, a less intense treatment, oral rehydration, was provided during the Public Health Emergency during the Bangladesh war, under Dr. Tom Simpson's leadership. It was also very effective.
In your experience since leaving JHSPH, what do you think makes the school unique?
Idealistic students; co-operation rather than competition between departments; presence at the School of role models like George Comstock and Carl Taylor; close connections with the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Medical School; and the ability of the School to pick the right leaders. During my time, the deans of the School (Ernest Stebbins, John Hume, D. A. Henderson, Alfred Sommer, and Michael Klag) and chairs of my department (Dr. Bang, Noel Rose, and Diane Griffin) were all outstanding scholars and leaders. So many home runs for the School!
What do you consider your most important accomplishments?
A full profile of some of Dr. Shah’s most significant accomplishments was featured in the Hopkins Bloomberg Public Health Magazine in Spring 2013.