On World AIDS Day 2012: Remembering Dr. B. Frank Polk

Dr. B. Frank Polk (1942-1988), physician, epidemiologist, pioneering researcher of HIV/AIDS

Dr. B. Frank Polk (1942-1988), physician, epidemiologist, pioneering researcher of HIV/AIDS

Today, December 1st, is World AIDS Day. All over the world, countries are celebrating how far we’ve come in curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS and how far we need to go. The Sydney Opera House was lit up in a resplendent glowing red against the night sky and a backdrop of red fireworks. Amidst the celebrations, it’s important to take some time to remember a time, not that long ago, when we were all more confused and frightened of this rare, terrifying epidemic.

One of the early pioneers of research into HIV/AIDS and an unsung medical hero is the late B. Frank Polk of Johns Hopkins. In 1982, Dr. Polk was one of the first to dedicate his energy and intellect into finding out more about a new baffling cluster of cases of a sexually transmitted disease cropping up among the gay community. At the time, they called it Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease (GRID), trying to pinpoint what it shared with other more well-known diseases.

Initially, at a major research institution like Hopkins, there was some skepticism in the early 80s about the importance of Polk’s research. John Bartlett, a specialist in infectious diseases wondered why Polk wanted to pursue this disease. “What disease? It’s just seven patients.” But Polk was undeterred. “It’s going to be a big one,” he responded.

Through Polk’s tireless efforts to track the symptoms and life cycle of HIV/AIDS, Hopkins and other institutions became more aware of the need to commit funding towards its research at a time when many knew so little about the disease and questioned its importance. I mention Dr. Polk because my mother was in his infectious disease epidemiology course at Hopkins in 1985. She remembers him the way many do, as a tremendously dedicated teacher and physician—bright-eyed, intellectually curious, and patient and incisive in regards to his students and the possibilities for new advances in research.

Three years later, Dr. Polk died of a brain tumor at the age of 46. His obituary in The New York Times describes his dedication and inexhaustible commitment to research, teaching, and lobbying for funding:

Despite the resources being devoted to AIDS research, he often expressed frustration with the slowness of the process: the drugs that turn out to be ineffective, the genetic hypotheses that are not tenable and the blind alleys that must be abandoned.”The only thing to do,” he said in an interview with the publication Public Health, ”is to try again.”

Dr. Frank Polk died before he could see how far his research and hard work helped our understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS. But his work and legacy certainly live on as we continue to find lasting solutions as to how to treat the disease and improve the lives of those who have it.


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