When Curtis L. Patton, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology (microbiology) and director of international medical studies at the School of Public Health, describes his career in public health, his memory goes back to his boyhood in Birmingham, Ala., when he contracted malaria. He can’t prove it after so many years, but he suspects he got the disease at a waterhole near his home, where he and his friends caught tadpoles and crawfish. The water was stagnant and dirty, but that didn’t seem to matter to the boys. “Pushing one another into the water was a wonderful game,” he recalled in a recent interview. “I found out after I was in college that this was an open sewer.”
Patton has spent his career studying tropical diseases, specifically the trypanosomes that cause malaria. Among his most memorable experiences, both professional and personal, were trips to the Brazilian Amazon to protect indigenous tribes from the diseases that followed civilization, to Kenya to study trypanosomes and tsetse flies, and to Senegal to study the public health implications of damming the Senegal River.
Patton retired in July after 36 years at Yale. Along with his research he will also be remembered for steering the Downs International Health Student Travel Fellowship program that has sent more than 400 students in medicine, public health, nursing and the Physician Associate Program abroad since it began in 1966. Students are expected to travel to a region of the world that has not only an underserved population, but is also one where they haven’t lived or worked before. “We decided it would be a better experience if students went to places that would stretch them culturally, underserved areas where there really was a need to find out what the problems were, not just in public health, but in medicine,” Patton said. One of his retirement projects is a study of the effects of the Downs program on participants. Anecdotally, he observes, “They come back more mature. They come back more committed.”
Patton believes this is an important program for students. “This is a formative period of their lives,” he said. “It’s not just about getting a Nobel Prize for studying malaria. It is about developing as an individual, as a student who is going to go ahead and make the kind of progress we want students to make.”