| Sep 21, 2006

Feature Article - September 21, 2006

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Feature Article - September 21, 2006

Dan Connor: international scientist

by Jeff Green

Dan and Norma Connor have owned a cottage on Long Lake for 50 years, and have become familiar to their neighbours over the years as enthusiastic, nature- loving cottagers.

Dan is a spry 78-year-old man, in good health. He and Norma spend five months each year at Long Lake and the rest of the year near Washington D.C. Although he no longer runs 50-mile races, as he did years ago, the years have not quelled Dan Connor’s lifelong scientific curiosity. Dan can often be found pulling out beaver dams or climbing a ladder to tend to the red squirrel nests he has constructed on his property (his red squirrel research has been featured on the Discovery Channel).


Neighbours on Long Lake , and in the Parham community, did not really know much about Dan Connor’s professional life, except that he was a pathologist working near Washington D.C. In fact he has been one of the leading lights in his field for over 50 years.

After graduating from Queen’s Medical School in 1953, Dan began making his mark in short order, becoming chief resident in Pathology at George Washington University Medical School by 1957. In 1960 he joined the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) in Washington , where he remained until 1987. His career there culminated in 17 years as chairman of the Department of Infectious and Parasitic Diseases Pathology. He then spent 10 years, until 1998, as a professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine.

From the earliest stages of his career, and even as a student, Dan Connor was interested in tropical infectious diseases. He spent three years in Uganda between 1962 and 1964 working for the US army and the World Health Organisation. In that time he diagnosed and studied many infectious diseases that had previously not been known to the western scientific community. This research was being funded by the Pentagon, as part of a cold war strategy, although Dan did not know this at the time. Africa had been identified as the next battleground in the Cold War by US Military officials and understanding the diseases on the continent was seen as of strategic significance by the US Military.

Dan’s later work has been informed by an interest in the devastating impacts of infectious diseases, and the need for treatment regimes, which he developed during his time in Africa ,

Dan Connor has written, co-written, or edited hundreds of articles on a wide range of diseases, including malaria, skin infections, and diseases with unfamiliar names like leishmaniasis and sparganosis. During the 1990s he spent seven years working, with a team of editors, on a massive textbook project, which ended with the publication, in 1997, of “The Pathology of Infectious Diseases”. This two-volume, 190-chapter opus was named medical book of the year.

After such a career, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Dan was approached 18 months ago, by organisers of the 100th Anniversary Congress of the International Association of Pathologists, to be the keynote speaker on the opening day of the event.

However, the surprising thing for Dan was that he was asked to speak about tuberculosis, which has not been a focus of his research.

The organisers persisted, reasoning that tuberculosis is like other infectious diseases. Like many others, it can be treated and has virtually been neutralised in western societies. Yet it is still kills millions in impoverished countries of the world. In regions where HIV/AIDS is prevalent, tuberculosis is even more deadly, since AIDS patients do not have the necessary immunities to keep tuberculosis at bay.

Both the number of people who die from TB and the fact that it is curable formed the impetus for the keynote address that Dan Connor delivered this past Sunday to thousands of delegates at the 100th Anniversary Congress of Pathologists.

In his address, which he graciously went over with me at his quiet cottage two days before delivering it in Montreal, Dan starts not by talking about Africa in 2006, but about Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island, in 1952. Dan spent the summer there that year with two other medical students.

He recalls a family coming in to the settlement where he was working one day. The father, the two sons and the grandmother were the picture of health, but the mother was thin and sickly. Tests showed that she had TB.

The contrast in health within the family made a strong impression on Dan Connor. He initiated tests which determined that almost everyone in the community was infected with TB. Infection often does not lead to symptoms and Connor himself contracted the TB baccilus in the Canadian north. In retrospect he realises that he did have had some symptoms.

Although the woman’s condition improved while at the settlement, where the medical students did what they could for her, Connor later learned that she died during the following winter. In Dan Connor’s mind, the image of that woman enduring the final, painful stages of tuberculosis in a dark igloo out on the frozen tundra in the winter of 1953, persists to this day. This image and others formed the emotional and political content of Dan’s presentation. It ended with a challenge to the International Association of Pathologists and the medical and development community as a whole, that when the 200th anniversary of the Association is marked, the TB bacillus will have been eliminated.

Dan Connor said that this address will be his last major presentation, but he will continue to make smaller presentations and lectures when requested.

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