blue wave pattern

Mission Possible: EIS Investigates Attacks

By Brian W. Simpson

Early on the morning of Sept. 14, only two planes were flying in American airspace that weren't part of the U.S. military. One was Air Force One, which was taking the president to New York.

The other was an Australian Air Force C-130, ferrying 34 Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers from Georgia to New York, according to Douglas Hamilton, EIS director. Faced with a commercial airline industry slowly recovering from the shutdown of American airspace and a U.S. military reluctant to lend out its planes, EIS accepted the Australian offer of transport in the C-130 (which was being retrofitted at an air base in Georgia). 

Strapped to his seat in the belly of the huge transport plane and surrounded by the duffel bags, suit-cases, and files of his fellow officers was Reuben Varghese, MD, MPH '99. Varghese and his colleagues were joining two EIS officers who had hitched a ride Sept. 11 on a U.S. pharmaceutical stockpile plane that landed in New York hours after the terrorist attacks. The EIS officers went there to monitor for any signs of the release of communicable agents.

Alex Langmuir, MD, MPH '40, founder of EIS, would have been proud. "Langmuir's spirit was that you didn't get answers by sitting in an office," Hamilton says. "You only got information by going in the field and collecting data there. That's the driving force of this program."

Begun by Langmuir and staffed by numerous School alumni and faculty over the past five decades, EIS retains a special connection to the School. 

Langmuir, a former associate professor of Epidemiology at the School, wheedled funds in 1951 from a reluctant U.S. Congress by submitting a report that detailed the dangers of biological warfare. Hamilton suspects, however, that Langmuir had another motive for forming an intelligence branch of disease detectives. "My sense was he was a pretty clever guy and he started EIS with the primary goal of increasing epidemiological capacity in the United States in general," he says. Ironically, Langmuir's EIS is a powerful resource in the battle against the latest instance of biological warfare: this fall's anthrax attacks by mail. 

Since Sept. 11, 112 of the 146 current EIS officers have been deployed to respond to the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax mail attacks, according to Hamilton. Four alumni from the School are serving in their first year of the two-year commitment. (The number of alumni in their second year at EIS was not available at press time.)

School alumni currently working as EIS officers join a long list of School faculty who are veteran EIS officers, including: Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS '73; D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH '60; Robert Lawrence, MD; Neal Halsey, MD; Bernard Guyer, MD, MPH; Henry Mosley, MD, MPH '65; Kenrad Nelson, MD; Kathy Helzlsouer, MD, MHS '88; Gordon Smith, MD, MPH; and Stan Becker, PhD '78.

"A lot of people in EIS have come through Hopkins," Hamilton says. "Hopkins certainly has one of the premier MPH programs in the world. When we see someone coming through Hopkins, that credential definitely gets our attention."