Dr. A. D. Langmuir, tracked lethal diseases

November 25, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

Dr. Alexander D. Langmuir, a pioneer in the "shoe-leather epidemiology" used to track down and defeat such public health menaces as smallpox, polio, measles and Legionnaire's disease, died Monday in Baltimore of kidney cancer. He was 83.

Founder of the Epidemic Intelligence Service at what is now the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Langmuir believed that potential public health epidemics could be identified, investigated and defeated by a team of mobile and highly trained epidemiologists.

The EIS, which he directed from 1949 to 1970, became the backbone of the CDC and the training ground for hundreds of leaders in public health, both in the United States and around the world.

"There are six current deans of 26 schools of public health who were all EIS officers," said Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and himself a former EIS officer.

"It's questionable whether any of us would have ended up in public health in the first place, let alone as our lifelong career, if it wasn't for Alex Langmuir."

Alexander Duncan Langmuir was born in Santa Monica, Calif., and grew up in New Jersey. He earned a medical degree from Cornell Medical College and a degree in public health from Hopkins. After World War II he returned to Hopkins to teach, but left in 1949 to join the CDC because, he later said, he "was rather disenchanted with academic life at Johns Hopkins."

He served as the CDC's chief epidemiologist for 21 years, creating the EIS as a corps of doctors ready to fly anywhere in the world to investigate reports of disease outbreaks, working door to door if necessary.

Dr. Langmuir had a commanding presence, an extraordinary mind and a highly questioning nature, Dr. Sommer said.

"You had to question everything and have real hard data to prove it," he said. "It was that continued insistence on the quality of your data and the quality of your questioning that was constantly challenging you to reach a very high standard."

Among the first successes of Dr. Langmuir's "shoe-leather epidemiology" was the elimination of persistent reports of malaria in the Southern United States.

"He didn't believe all these cases were . . . really malaria," Dr. Sommer said. "He insisted that his people not believe the data the state and county health departments were sending in about malaria cases and sent people to investigate. They found the vast majority of cases were not malaria. We could have gone on for years worrying about malaria and spraying insecticides because somebody hadn't asked the critical questions."

When polio cases continued to be reported in parts of the country despite government vaccination programs in the 1950s, the public and even the president demanded to know why. Dr. Langmuir sent in his EIS officers to find out.

They found that some of the victims had been vaccinated, and traced the outbreaks to faulty vaccine in which the polio virus had not been completely killed.

Dr. Langmuir and his EIS officers responded to public health emergencies around the world, working with local health authorities to investigate and cope with disease outbreaks.

After retiring from the CDC in 1970, he taught for seven years at Harvard Medical School. He returned to Hopkins in 1988, where he taught a course Dr. Sommer described as "Great Moments in Public Health and I Was There."

Dr. Langmuir, a Baltimore resident, is survived by three daughters, Anne Ruggles of Atlanta, Susan Davis of Philadelphia and Lynn Adams of Boston; a son, Paul Harper Langmuir of Providence, R.I.; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Memorial services are planned for 2 p.m. Dec. 11 at the School of Hygiene and Public Health.

The family suggested donations to the Alexander D. Langmuir Fund in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe St., Suite 1604A, Baltimore 21205.

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