Dr. Eugene Gangarosa, trailblazing infectious disease expert, dies

He spearheaded a key scientific advance credited with saving millions of lives, changed the face of two of Atlanta’s well known medical institutions, and played pivotal roles in developing food safety regulations and water and sanitation improvements.

Yet Dr. Eugene Gangarosa was “amazingly modest” about his impressive list of accomplishments, accolades and involvements, said a fellow Emory University medical school faculty member.

Gangarosa’s sprawling career of groundbreaking research on infectious intestinal diseases and work to improve water quality and sanitation worldwide might not have happened if he hadn’t served in World War II.

“He initially went into a pilot training program, but as the tide of war changed, they were no longer needed,” said son Ray Gangarosa. Diverted into a quartermaster’s role, he was sent to provide logistics help in Naples, Italy, which was being wracked by a 1944 typhus epidemic.

It was a good fit, said the younger Gangarosa, in that his dad “was a very capable organizer and he spoke Italian, being from an immigrant family.” But the suffering he saw made a powerful impact.

Still in the military, he debated pursuing a logistics career, but one of his mentors mentioned going to medical school said his son.

He did, attending the University of Rochester in his New York hometown, where his 70-year career in medicine began.

Gangarosa, born Aug. 7, 1926, died Aug. 11 in Atlanta at the age 96. He’s survived by his wife of 72 years Rose Christine, son Raymond Eugene as well as sons Eugene John Jr. and Paul Charles and their spouses, three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. A memorial service was held Aug. 29.

Gangarosa’s decades of work ran on two parallel tracks. As an academician, he was founding dean for the faculty of health sciences at the American University of Beirut. Later, he took a position at Emory, where he founded what is now the Rollins School of Public Health, sensing that such an entity next door to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make for a natural synergy.

As a scientist and researcher, he was instrumental in establishing the CDC’s enteric disease division and in heading up its Epidemic Intelligence Service, a disease detective training program with a heavy emphasis on field work.

But perhaps his biggest research breakthrough came in the late 1950s. While working with a team from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, he did intestinal biopsies on cholera victims and helped lay the groundwork for the development of an oral rehydration therapy treatment that radically deviated from the prior conventions. It’s credited with saving 50 million lives in its first 40 years of its use, according to the CDC Foundation.

Gangarosa also helped develop food safety and sanitation regulations, established surveillance programs for water and food-borne diseases and fostered practical technology for chlorinating water at the household level.

“His work was legendary,” said Jim Curran, who recently stepped down as dean of the Rollins school. “He was a very smart man and could see unmet needs.”

“He was soft-spoken but determined. And he was not afraid to form an opinion.”

Or to think outside the box. At research meetings at the CDC, he’d suggest new approaches and ideas that worked when fellow scientists were stumped. At one point, he brainstormed — applying knowledge from NASA’s program designed to keep astronauts from getting food poisoning in orbit — to similar research at the CDC.

Gangarosa’s impact will continue because of the medical students he mentored, said Dr. Christine Moe, the Eugene Gangarosa Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation at Emory, and also the director of the Center for Global Safe Water. She saw him take students under wing, inlcuding her, countless times.

“I think he had an amazing ability to see potential in people, and he really loved to mentor young professionals,” said Moe.

Moe said he had a knack for not only teaching medical science but also putting it into historical perspective — as when he lectured that a switch from hard-to-keep-clean woolen underwear to cotton undies following the invention of the cotton gin led to a decline in typhus.

His contributions to medical schooling stretched beyond holding forth in front of a chalkboard. Astute investments in the stock market yielded millions of dollars, which he and his wife used to establish numerous endowed chairs and scholarship funds.

Gangarosa may have had to come to his lectures in a wheelchair for the last year or two. But his eyes still lit up whenever he talked with a student, said Moe.

Most people as they age focus more inwardly, said Curran. But not Gangarosa.

“He was always thinking about what could be done in the future.”