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Hopkins Reader

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective

She may not be Miss Marple, calmly solving murders between knitting sweaters and sipping tea, but Mary Guinan ’72 has spent the better part of four decades as a self-described medical detective, tracking down clues about such mass murderers as smallpox and AIDS as she helped lead the fight against them.

In her 123-page memoir, Guinan recounts her career as a one of the few female physicians and scientists in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between 1974 and 1998, where she undertook pioneering roles in eradicating smallpox and combating the AIDS epidemic while also stemming discrimination against those who have the disease.

Her efforts had unexpected hazards. During far-flung travels in 1980 to evaluate the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, she was caught in the middle of machine-gun fire between religious factions in Lebanon’s long-running civil war, and she dealt with Afghan insurgents in Pakistan refugee camps.

Her early, high-profile efforts to uncover the causes of AIDS and alert the public to it earned her the nickname “Dr. Condom.” When asked in 1978 about the risk of getting AIDS from a toilet seat, she responded: “The only way I know of that you can get AIDS from a toilet seat is if you sit down on it before someone else gets up.” That quote is still used in medical meeting slideshows. “A colleague once told me that line would be my epitaph,” she writes.

Guinan’s work on HIV/AIDS earned her a place in the late Randy Shield’s best-selling 1987 book, And the Band Played On, and she was also a key expert witness in a landmark court case that led to the 1992 decision that those with HIV could not be discriminated against and denied employment because of it.

 Guinan left the CDC to become the first female Nevada chief health officer. She later became a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she was the founding dean of its School of Community Health Sciences and now is a professor emerita. 

book cover

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS

Mary Guinan, M.D., Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University Press (2016)