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Dr. Mary Guinan is a researcher, author, teacher, advocate, and self-described “medical detective.” She worked for twenty years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), first  as a clinical research investigator in the Venereal Disease Control Division, and later as a virologist on the CDC AIDS Task Force, first female chief scientific advisor, Associate Director for Science, Assistant Director for Evaluation of the CDC Office of HIV/AIDS, and Chief of Urban Research Centers.

Dr. Guinan pursued an undergraduate chemistry degree at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She sought employment in the gender-segregated newspaper ads, where “there was never an ad for a chemist in the female listings.” Joining the American Chicle Division of Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company, her first job was developing new flavors of chewing gum.


She studied blood coagulation during a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Guinan then attended the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. During a semester in Guadalajara, Mexico, she worked at a leprosy clinic and saw her first polio case. In 1972, Dr. Guinan received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins and focused on infectious diseases inspired by the efforts to develop a smallpox vaccine.  “If this mission worked,” she reflected, “it would be the first time in history that a human disease was eliminated by the design of humans. Smallpox, a horrible disease feared by civilizations from earliest recorded history, would then be gone.”


Dr. Guinan joined the the Hospital Infections Program with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After two denied applications to volunteer with the Smallpox Eradication Program in India, the World Health Organization indicated that neither they nor India were accepting women. Guinan protested that “the prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was a woman and asked whether they knew about this?” Shortly thereafter she was accepted and joined Operation Smallpox Zero in India, a coordinated effort designed to interrupt smallpox transmission by immunizing the population surrounding any detected patient. Excited by the work she “decided to embark on a career in public health.”


In 1980, she returned to the CDC studying sexually transmitted diseases. Her research on herpes eventually led to a CDC task force investigating the emerging AIDS epidemic. Dr. Guinan participated in collecting data for the landmark case-control study of AIDS undertaken by the CDC’s Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections Task Force, detailed in the book And the Band Played On.


Throughout her work on sexually transmitted diseases and the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Guinan faced widespread misconceptions from both the public and the media. Dr. Guinan consistently advocated for accurate public health information and fought against the media-perpetrated myths regarding sexually transmitted diseases. In an interview where a reporter pressed her on her level of certainty that AIDS was not transmitted on toilet seats, she stated, “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.”


In addition to her critical role in the CDC’s efforts to eliminate smallpox and fight the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Guinan has played an important role in advancing public health as the first female Nevada State Health Officer and founding dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Dr. Guinan has published a memoir of her public health career entitled Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS.


Mary's bio contributed by ADRIANA BLAZESKI.


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