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Dr. Mary Elizabeth Guinan

Year of Birth / Death


Medical School

The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine



Career Path

Internal medicine: Epidemiology
Dr. Mary Elizabeth Guinan


Dr. Mary Guinan was among the first scientists in America to identify the emerging AIDS cases of the 1980s as part of a larger epidemic of a new disease.
Dr. Mary Guinan was the first woman to serve as chief scientific advisor at the Center for Disease Control (CDC).


Dr. Mary Guinan, a physician and scientist who has worked at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has been a leading researcher and educator on sexually transmitted diseases. Working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Guinan was among the first medical scientists in America to identify and research the emerging AIDS epidemic.

Dr. Guinan's career medicine began at the University of Texas, Medical Branch, in Galveston where she received her Ph.D. in physiology in 1969. In 1972 she graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and completed a residency at the Hershey Medical Center of Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Guinan joined the Centers for Disease Control of Prevention (CDC) in 1974.

When she first came to the agency, Dr. Guinan worked in the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS). Best described as a "medical FBI," this branch of the CDC studies global disease outbreaks. Dr. Guinan's work led her to Uttar Pradesh, India, where she worked in a smallpox eradication campaign. The World Health Organization named her to the Noble Order of the Bifurcated Needle in 1976 for this work. That same year, Dr. Guinan began a two-year fellowship concentrating on sexually transmitted diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

In 1978, Dr. Guinan received her board certification in the internal medicine sub-specialty of infectious diseases and returned to the CDC as a clinical research investigator in the Venereal Disease Control Division. Dr. Guinan became the national expert on genital herpes. Battling the epidemic, she enlisted the national media to help advocate for safe sex and the use of condoms. "I became 'Dr. Condom.' We had the pill and everyone was going around having sex and I was trying to tell them about the health risks of having multiple partners." Dr. Guinan remembered, "Herpes affected white heterosexual, middle-class people, and so there was a lot of interest."

In the early 1980s, Dr. Guinan again tried to capture media attention, to focus on the growing AIDS epidemic. This time, however, the press seemed reluctant. Because early reports pinpointed AIDS in the homosexual population, the press was reluctant to run the story, and many organizations seem disinclined to help. Dr. Guinan and the CDC had to work hard to raise awareness and support for AIDS education, and the challenges of the epidemic for every member of the global community.

The first report of what would later come to be known as AIDS ran in the CDC's newsletter Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on January 5, 1981. Though the initial article ran on page two, the response from some physicians was immediate. "We knew something was terribly, terribly wrong. We went to the head of the CDC and asked for funds to investigate and those funds were provided," Dr. Guinan recalled. Over the next few years, Dr. Guinan led the way in AIDS research and education and went on to set up and serve on the CDC's AIDS Task Force. Her instrumental role in uncovering the AIDS epidemic was documented by Randy Shilts in his 1987 book, And the Band Played On. The book was later produced as a docu-drama on the Home Box Office television network. In 1984, Dr. Guinan was promoted to become the CDC's associate director for the Division of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. She served as chief of evaluation for the nationwide HIV Prevention Program from 1990 through 1995.

Her twenty-year career at the CDC included being the first woman to serve in the position of chief scientific advisor. Dr. Guinan also led the development of Urban Research Centers in Detroit, Seattle and New York City.

In 1998, Dr. Guinan moved west to Carson City, Nevada where she began a second career as executive director for the state's Public Health Foundation. In this position she manages an annual budget of $124 million and directs more than 450 state health employees.

Question and Answer

What was my biggest obstacle?

Money and limited opportunities for admission to medical schools for women.

How do I make a difference?

I work in public health, population-based health, which focuses on disease prevention and health promotion. I advocate for funds for underserved populations and try to increase emphasis on prevention.

Who was my mentor?

Unfortunately, I did not have one.

How has my career evolved over time?

I moved from individual patient care to population-based health after my involvement with the smallpox eradication program in India. I realized public health efforts could have a much greater impact on the health of a community.