January 24th, 2021

John Bartlett and Hank Aaron — Consistently Great for a Long, Long Time

Early last week, we lost one of the true giants in Infectious Diseases, Dr. John Bartlett. Long-time Chief of ID at Johns Hopkins, he was a true Infectious Diseases polymath — deeply knowledgeable about such a wide range of topics that virtually everyone in our field knew and respected him.

If you’ll permit me to lift this from a previous tribute to John, here’s a partial list of his areas of expertise:

Given that breadth of knowledge, it’s no wonder that his annual summaries of “What’s Hot” in Infectious Diseases were must-see events at every IDSA/IDWeek meeting.

Year after year after year.

This consistency of greatness is no small feat. People get sidetracked. Or tired. Or motivated by greener pastures (money). Or hyper-focused on their own areas of expertise. As the famous quote goes, “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

John was the polar opposite of this kind of expert.

I’m convinced he maintained this broad view of our field because he was just such an innately curious and enthusiastic person. A (very) small example — I remember telling him of the surprisingly high treatment failure rates in people with high HIV viral loads with the two-drug combination of raltegravir and boosted darunavir in ACTG 5262.

“But they’re two of our best drugs,” he said to me in astonishment. (He was right about that.) “That’s absolutely fascinating! Why do you think that happened?”

For the record, we’re still not quite sure. But it did. And you can be sure that John was genuinely interested, immediately scribbling down a note about it on those ubiquitous yellow pads he carried with him everywhere.

Another remarkable quality of John’s was his extraordinary prescience, always knowing the next “big thing” in Infectious Diseases, often years before others. Here’s text from a paper he published — in 2008:

The United States needs to be better prepared for a large-scale medical catastrophe, be it a natural disaster, a bioterrorism act, or a pandemic. There are substantial planning efforts now devoted to responding to an influenza pandemic… Here, we identify some harsh realities: the US healthcare system is private, competitive, broke, and at capacity, so that any demand for surge cannot be met with existing economic resources, hospital beds, manpower, or supplies.

Chilling. Can you imagine how strong John’s voice would have been in our COVID-19 response had he been well enough this past year to participate?

John’s kindness and approachability, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of all things ID, allowed him to teach, influence, and mentor countless medical students, residents, and fellows over the years. A distinguished chief of medicine (not an ID doctor) just told me she learned all her fundamental clinical ID knowledge from him during her residency at Hopkins. I have heard this same anecdote from numerous others.

Since everyone adored John, he used these relationships to gain insight from researchers and experts from all over the ID world. If someone started a clinical trial using a novel probiotic to prevent C. diff, he’d call that person and get the inside scoop (never disclosing non-public information, of course). Why this probiotic? What were the goals of the study? The challenges? What did they envision as the long-term risks and benefits?

“I wondered about why they chose this approach,” he’d say, “so I called Dr. — up, and here’s what he told me …” Hearing him talk about cutting edge ID clinical research was inside baseball at its best.

Speaking of baseball — this past week we also lost one of the greatest players who ever lived, Henry “Hank” Aaron, whose long and distinguished career strikes me as quite similar to John’s.

(Yes I can find baseball in anything.)

Aaron could hit for power, hit for average, throw, run, and field — a five-tool player, analogous to John Bartlett’s broad expertise. And it was sustained greatness, year after year after year. In baseball history, nobody was consistently great for longer than Hank Aaron:

Nobody ever played the game so well, so consistently, so long. He was the wave crashing upon the shore.

That Aaron did this in the face of blistering racism, especially as he approached (and passed) Babe Ruth’s home run record, makes his achievements all the more impressive.

Two remarkable people — John Bartlett and Hank Aaron. What a week.

14 Responses to “John Bartlett and Hank Aaron — Consistently Great for a Long, Long Time”

  1. Philip Saccoccia Jr MD says:

    greatness lifts us all up

  2. Thank you for your information on both of these great men!! So sad that we had to lose them. I never had the pleasure to meet either of these men but did meet Dr Bartlett’s son Scott!
    The world will continue to benefit from both of them!

  3. Norah Smith says:

    RIP Dr Bartlett. He helped save so many lives with his brilliant mind and was a great father and husband.

  4. Loretta S says:

    Dr. Bartlett is on my list of “people I wish I had met”. I am embarrassed to say that there was a time when I had no clue who he was, but once I learned a bit about him, I was in absolute awe of his breadth of knowledge. And I loved his writing style. His journal articles were written in such a straightforward manner, it was a pleasure to read them.

  5. Munita Singh says:

    I would like to pay a tribute to you, Paul Sax, for keeping me informed not only about ID, but also about your vision of the US.You helped me survive the years of the scourge during which I really feared for reason itself. Like Bob Dylan and Alan Bennett, I hope you keep on keeping on!

  6. Jan Kriebs says:

    Thank you for sharing the loss of Dr Bartlett. he was truly a great man.

  7. Jason Halperin, MD MPH says:

    I would like to add an anecdote in memory of Dr Bartlett. At my initial IDWeek and as a first-year medical resident, I presented a poster on how earlier diagnosis of HIV saved my hospital system money. This lovely gentleman walked by asking probing questions on the data. He then offered to continue the conversation over coffee in between sessions. For easily over an hour, we discussed my professional interests and whenever the conversation veered to his career, he came back centering on inspiring me to enter the field of ID.
    At the time, I did not know who he was though I quickly realized I was in the presence of greatness. I recall often this profound lesson in mentorship. Dr. Bartlett will be dearly missed and let us continue his traditions.

  8. Lisa Warsinger Martin says:

    I remember Dr Bartlett very well, having met him during my medicine residency at Johns Hopkins. He was such a hard worker, with very little sleep, but was always willing to provide consultation and wisdom, and answer questions.

  9. Jacobo Sabbaj says:

    John had a rich full life. I met Jean and John in 1969. He appeared to be a laid-back individual; no way Jose. He knew how to enjoy life, while being devoted to his art and science. He was an intense individual and quite an astute clinician. We had a constant/intermittent friendship while catching up mostly at IDSA/ACP meetings. What a great and marvelous medical legacy for a laid-back lad. A quote from John Locke in “The Quiet Art – A Doctor’s Anthology”, which was given to us a farewell memento as we left Wadsworth Hospital and UCLA in 1971 succinctly describes John B.: “A whole, sound, round-about man”

  10. Rebecca Baranowski says:

    I was fortunate and honored to work with him.

  11. Mimi Breed says:

    Paul:

    Thanks for another fabulous essay. Please don’t stop doing this. I knew John Bartlett was an ID god; now I know why. And Hank Aaron. Blessings on him, too.

    Mimi

  12. Agustín Muñoz-Sanz says:

    Dear Dr. Sax: Infectious Diseases specialists, like all of medicine, are in mourning. I allow myself to self-quote by retrieving a piece of a comment I posted on Medscape when I read the sad news: “We spent very little time with him, but the experience was intense, and it spawned a great emotion. Only giants who are epoch-making can transmit that magic. I was very fortunate because Bartlett is a historical medical doctor.”

  13. Margo Rogers says:

    I worked for “JB” at Johns Hopkins for almost 10 years. All of the comments shared here describe the physician and scientist a “T”. Those of us lucky enough to see him every day, knew he enjoyed a good party and was a devoted family man. When Michael Jackson was on tour on the heels of “Thriller,” JB was determined to get tickets for he and his son. JB went to the concert venue in downtown Baltimore to stand in line for tickets. While waiting for the box office to open, he was interviewed by a local reporter while wearing his personalized white lab coat and an Osler tie. To honor his tenacity, the ID staff scrambled to throw a party, complete with single sequined latex gloves and accelerated lessons in moonwalking. Getting off of the elevator, he was met with the music of “Thriller” and his staff attempting to moonwalk in his honor. He laughed hardily and joined in the fun. That’s the JB I was honored to work for and blessed to know.

  14. Don Pachuta says:

    Thanks for posting this. John and I served on the Governor’s Council on AIDS back in the day. Although the consummate scientist, he was willing to stand side by side with people with other ideas. At a time when no drugs existed, I sponsored two international conferences in Washington, called “Living Long and Living Well, with HIV and AIDS – an Idea Whose Time Has come.” John was the featured speaker about traditional medicine, and was joined by others from the Complimentary side – Bernie Siegel, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, Louise Hay, among others. They all hit it off well. John was fascinated by the panel of long term survivors and said that we could learn a lot from them. My fondest memory then was John dancing at a social get together after. I edited a special issue of the Maryland State Medical Journal and we both wrote lead articles – he on Traditional and me on Complimentary Medicine. There are not enough superlatives to describe John as a person and a physician

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

Learn more about HIV and ID Observations.