Clive Shiff, wearing a shirt, tie, and jacket speaks with a man and woman whose backs are to the camera

The Dinner Party

By Jennifer Walker • Photo by Chris Hartlove

Known for classy repasts at the august Johns Hopkins Club, the Tropical Medicine Dinner Club celebrates nonstandard—even off-putting—dinner conversation. Circumcision, diarrhea, projectile vomiting…

“Nobody seems to mind,” says Yale Kim, an MHS student in Mental Health, at April’s dinner. She sits at a table covered in white linen, a glass of rosé in her hand.

“It’s not that we don’t seem to mind, we don’t notice,” adds Remington Nevin, a DrPH student who’s also in Mental Health. “Everybody here certainly knows how to laugh about it despite how awful these topics actually are.”

Since 1970, relaxed conversations about public health have been the Club’s hallmark, and fried chicken has been a mainstay on the menu. Over the years, speakers at the monthly gathering have talked about malaria vaccines, preeclampsia, Alexander the Great’s lethal fever, rickettsial diseases and a host of other topics.

Membership, which is $30 annually plus the cost of dinner, is open to people from local institutions, such as the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland. Around 30 to 50 people attend.

“People are really just interested in talking and finding out what’s going on in public health,” says Clive Shiff, PhD, associate professor in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology (MMI), and a Club member since the mid-1980s.

He recalls some passionate discussions—such as one last year about the mental health effects of certain antimalarial medications and whether these side effects should limit their use among the military. More often though, faculty and students chat amiably about their work, as they do on this April evening.

Over cocktails, Shiff tells Nevin, MD, MPH ’04, about his latest discovery: Malaria transmission, which usually declines during hot and dry months, can actually still occur under these conditions in some areas of Africa. Using satellites and climate data in Zambia, Shiff and his teammates found that a source of moisture (most likely from the water table) affords enough humidity for mosquitoes to forage.

Later, while eating fried chicken, coleslaw and biscuits, Douglas Norris, PhD, MS, also an MMI associate professor, and Sarah-Blythe Ballard, MD, MPH ’10, an Epidemiology PhD student, find that they share an interest in aviation. Having recently returned from a conference in Florida, Norris casually tells Ballard about one program’s methods for airborne spraying for mosquitoes.

After-dinner speaker Larry Kincaid, PhD, associate scientist at the School’s Center for Communication Programs, talks about the role of communication programs—animated commercials, television dramas—in preventing HIV in South Africa. The diners listen intently while passing around homemade pralines for dessert.

Afterward, Nevin remembers a dinner in which he sat with Shiff, Epidemiology Professor Kenrad Nelson, MD, and Dean Emeritus D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH ’60. “I just thought, ‘My goodness, the concentration of genius at this table,’” he says. “The Dinner Club is a wonderful opportunity for young students to meet with so many greats in tropical medicine.”

Shiff is happy to hear this. “I like students to feel at home in the tropical disease community,” he says. It’s one reason why the Club awards one or two $500 scholarships annually—named after the late Thomas Simpson, MD, former associate professor and a founding member of the Club—to student members doing field work in developing countries.