A pioneer in the field of infectious diseases surveillance has died.
John Payne Woodall — known to all as Jack — was one of the founders of ProMED, an internet-based outbreak reporting system run under the auspices of the International Society for Infectious Diseases. The acronym is short for the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases.
ProMED was established in 1994. Woodall, who was 81 at the time of his death on Monday, was involved virtually until the end, contributing frequently to discussions about a dangerous yellow fever outbreak in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The unprecedented size of the outbreak has strained supplies of yellow fever vaccine at points this year and Woodall feared the need would outstrip the supply.
He pushed tenaciously for the World Health Organization to recommend use of a fractional dose of vaccine, an approach the organization endorsed in June.
In urgent emails to like-minded scientists and others he thought could influence the cause, Woodall would often sign off with a quote from the cartoon strip “Calvin and Hobbes.”
He described the quote as his motto: “God put me on this earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now I’m so far behind I will never die.”
The list of Woodall’s accomplishments was long, friends and colleagues said.
An arbovirologist, Woodall was involved in some of the earliest research on the Zika virus, which was discovered in Uganda in 1947.
He was not involved in the virus’s discovery — he was still a boy at that time — but reported on finding it in mosquitoes in Uganda, where he worked for a time after graduating with a doctorate in entomology and virology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
His life and career took him literally around the globe. He spent part of his childhood in China, noted Dr. Marjorie Pollack, a friend and fellow ProMED moderator. And as a scientist, he worked at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, the Belem Virus Laboratory in Brazil, the Yale University arbovirus research unit in New Haven, Conn., and the New York State Health Department.
Pollack met Woodall in 1977 when he was director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s dengue branch, in San Juan. Later, Woodall spent 14 years at the WHO in Geneva.
Pollack described him as “a delight.”
“He had an inquisitive mind, a brilliant mind, and he would stimulate discussion wherever he was,” she recalled.
“He sometimes would come across professionally as a bull in a china shop if he felt that things that were going on were wrong. … But that was part of his charm.”
Dr. Stephen Morse, a professor of infectious diseases at Colombia University, was one of the other cofounders of ProMED. (The third was Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist.)
“Jack had a remarkable life and did so many things, I once jokingly referred to him as our own Indiana Jones,” Morse said.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, growing concern about the potential use of biological agents in warfare and the risks posed by emerging diseases led to calls for improved surveillance.
In the nascent days of the public internet, that wasn’t necessarily easy to do, Morse said. But Woodall was keen on the capacity of technology to connect people in public health.
ProMED evolved to become an invaluable early warning system, alerting the world of unusual disease activity in southern China that would later become the 2003 SARS outbreak.
“Jack really believed in emerging infectious diseases and fixing the disease surveillance problems, the challenges to find out about outbreaks sooner,” Pollack said.
Dr. Lawrence Madoff, the editor of ProMED, described Woodall as a character. “He clearly spoke his mind. He definitely was the ‘speak truth to power’ type,” he said.
That said, Woodall insisted ProMED should not criticize governments for their handling of outbreaks, Madoff said, noting he felt it was more important to engage governments to encourage transparency than to play an adversarial role.
Woodall died in London following a battle with pancreatic cancer.