Jeffrey P. Koplan, newly appointed vice president for academic health affairs, saw the devastating effects of smallpox as a young public health doctor in Bangladesh. He led the U.S. team investigating the Bhopal, India, chemical disaster. And, as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), he oversaw the agency’s response to last year’s terrorist attacks and anthrax threat.

Now, in his role with the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, Koplan is leading a task force that will coordinate the University’s response to potential bioterrorism as well as helping to create the Southeastern Center for Emerging Biologic Threats, a regional coalition of research institutions and public health programs spearheaded by Emory.

But he plans to use his expertise to encourage healthful pursuits of a more mundane nature, as well.

“We need to prepare—we must prepare—for bioterrorism, but academic health centers can never become so focused on preparing for the rare and deadly that we ignore our responsibility to combat the common and chronically disabling,” says Koplan, who joined Emory in April after serving as director of the CDC since 1998. “People also need to be focused on preventive measures like quitting smoking, exercising, wearing seat belts, and making sure kids wear bike helmets.”

Koplan has been charged with guiding research and academic strategies across the schools of medicine, nursing, public health, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and Emory’s healthcare network of hospitals, clinics, and community health centers.

“All the major health issues on the table for the nation and the world are actively being worked on here, as well as actual patient care being delivered daily,” he says. “It’s a wonderful setting.”

Koplan, who has a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale, a medical degree from Mount Sinai, and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard, has long had links to Emory. He served as a clinical professor in the School of Medicine for twelve years and has had an appointment in the Rollins School of Public Health since its founding in 1990.

“It’s a pleasure having Jeff here. He is a leader of great intelligence and integrity, with a strong work ethic and a wonderful sense of humor, which he applies appropriately and liberally,” says Michael M. E. Johns, executive vice president for health affairs. “His position is designed to be a catalyst for the tremendous energy and imagination of our faculty across the health sciences center and for the kind of partnerships we have with the Georgia Research Alliance, the CDC, and other research universities and organizations. Who could be more perfect for this than Jeff Koplan?”

Koplan’s twenty-six years in public health began as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer—the CDC’s elite “disease detectives” who are sent to remote areas of the world to deal with outbreaks. As a member of the smallpox eradication team in Bangladesh in 1972, Koplan ran a smallpox ward in a hospital in Dhaka and traveled the area in a converted Red Cross X-ray boat, searching for isolated pockets of the disease. “Smallpox was still rampant throughout the country,” recalls Koplan. In 1979, two years after the last smallpox case was found in Somalia, the world was declared smallpox-free.

“For most of us involved in smallpox eradication, it was a lifelong experience,” he says. “It served to motivate us to continue to work in public health and gave us an unfailing optimism for the success of public health programs even in the face of overwhelming odds.”

Koplan went on to serve the CDC in numerous capacities. He developed health programs in ten Caribbean nations while based in Trinidad and Tobago. In 1984, he led the U.S. team investigating the gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal that killed thousands and left many more with serious injuries. From 1989 to 1994, he served as the first director of the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and as the U.S. assistant surgeon general.

“Jeff is able to walk into the most difficult and confusing situations, whether toxic accidents in Bhopal, smallpox in Bangladesh, or anthrax in the United States, and with patience, humor, and keen insight he is able to provide order out of chaos,” says William H. Foege, former CDC director and Koplan’s mentor. “It is a fine and rare gift.” 

Koplan left the CDC in 1994 to lead the Prudential Center for Health Care Research in Atlanta, but returned as director in 1998, overseeing the public health agency’s eleven institutes, centers, and offices, and seven thousand employees. Under his leadership, the CDC established a national women’s breast and cervical cancer early detection program, battled domestic syphilis with community-based programs, focused attention on the global impact of the hazards of tobacco, enhanced efforts to eradicate polio worldwide, and set up public health programs in China, Finland, and Hungary.

While serving in the Public Health Service, Koplan received the Distinguished Service Award—the corps’ highest honor.

Practicing the health strategies he advocates, Koplan is a triathlete who runs, rows, and cycles, and has competed in the Acworth Triathlon, the Peachtree Road Race, and the Georgia Games. He applies this philosophy to his life’s work, as well.

“The acute problems and threats are terribly interesting,” he says. “But public health is a marathon, not a sprint.”—M.J.L.



© 2002 Emory University