Dr. Kenrad E. Nelson, an infectious disease specialist who worked on multinational science projects, dies – Baltimore Sun
Dr. Kenrad E. Nelson, a retired Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor and infectious disease specialist, died of bone marrow failure April 21 at Sinai Hospital. He was 89 and lived in Mount Washington.
Born in Harvey, Illinois, he was the son of Rachel Cunningham and J. Edwin Nelson, a Swedish immigrant who worked in factories and was a minor league baseball player.
He attended DePauw University and was a graduate of Northwestern Medical School. He did his residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
Early in his career, he took on extra jobs — he passed insurance medicals, served as a physician at Cook County Jail, and did home births through the Chicago Maternity Center. He also helped a classmate who worked as a nurse at Chicago Blackhawks hockey games. He remained a Blackhawks and White Sox fan.
During his first year of residency at Cook County Hospital, Dr. Nelson met his future wife, Karen Barkas, who was a doctor and later an intern who specialized in pediatrics. They met in Ward 15.
“He was involved in his research but also had fun,” his wife said. “He tended to be late for events because he was always working on two or more other things.”
Dr. Nelson was interested in infectious diseases and he joined the United States Public Health Service and worked in a then new division, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
His family said he had adventures involving bats, irrigation ditches, college cafeterias and Native American gatherings.
He then worked at the University of Illinois Medical School and later became a consultant at the new Chiang Mai University Medical Center in northern Thailand.
“He found his true calling, learning about new diseases, working with the local medical school and working in the field to collect information about diseases in Thailand, and how to study and control them,” a family obituary said. “Karen and Kenrad traveled halfway around the world to Thailand with the four children they had acquired by then; then came back with five.
Abroad, he worked effectively with the people he met and learned to understand their customs and cultures.
“He also developed a mastery of handling the bureaucratic and political complexities required for multinational science projects,” the family obituary said. “These skills remained an important part of his professional success for the rest of his career.”
He moved to Baltimore in 1986 and joined the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and served as an academic advisor and mentor to 31 graduate students.
During his career he had 481 published scientific papers and was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was editor of a textbook on the epidemiology of infectious diseases.
He received an honorary doctorate in public health from the King of Thailand after working in the country and helping the country develop an infectious disease department.
“The awards ceremony was held outdoors and the king sat under a canopy,” his wife said.
He was a past president of the American Epidemiological Society. He received a medal from the US Civilian Research and Development Foundation as “an effective spokesperson for the power of international collaboration”.
“Ken was always up for adventure. He traveled to some of the toughest places in the world. He cared deeply about disenfranchised communities and helped improve health in places that needed it most,” said Dr. Robert “Bob” Bollinger, a colleague and friend of Hopkins. “He was a great colleague, mentor and traveling companion. You had a lot of fun with him. He was just a great person to be around.”
Friends said Dr Nelson had never met a man or a meal he didn’t like. He experienced the food, drink, customs, religious rituals, history, politics and geography where he worked.
He also took photos and brought home trinkets which he enthusiastically shared with friends and family.
When he returned from a long trip, he used to fall into a hibernation sleep that lasted 15 to 20 hours, his family said.
Dr. Nelson was a champion of fairness and equal rights for all. He was an active civil rights activist, having marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Cicero, Illinois. He was a former member of the Oak Park (Illinois) Citizens Committee for Human Rights and an advocate for gay men during the early years of HIV/AIDS.
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Dr. Nelson was an advocate for gun control. His family described him as a “shameless liberal”.
They said he embraced intellectualism.
“Ken was always aware of important ideas discussed by leading historians, scientists and economists of the day,” his wife said. “Our coffee table was always stacked with the latest books from current scholars.”
She said he could be intolerant, and often non-observant, of rules and regulations he deemed foolish or necessary.
“His main intolerance was for anyone or anything that stood in the way of his research, but other things like passwords or Republicans could also attract his ire,” she said.
Dr. Nelson is survived by his wife of 60 years, a retired pediatrician who worked at the Baltimore City Health Department; two sons, Eric Nelson of Bexley, Ohio and Joel Nelson of Lanham; three daughters, Elizabeth Williams of Baltimore, Linnea Cheseldine of Towson and Tida Nelson of Baltimore; and ten grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. on June 4 at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church in Bolton Hill where he attended services.