AIDS Pioneer Among the Victims: Jonathan Mann was one of first to warn of potential global devastation

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Jonathan Mann speaks at United Nations General Assembly, 1987. (Courtesy UN/DPI Photo by Saw Lwin)

This story was originally published on Sept. 4, 1998


The global battle against AIDS lost one of its most impassioned warriors, Jonathan M. Mann, former director of the World Health Organization's international AIDS program, in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia.

Along with his wife, Mary Lou Clements-Mann, he was en route to WHO's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, for scientific meetings on the global AIDS epidemic, which has claimed more than 13 million lives since the first cases were reported in the early 1980s.

Mann, 51, was entering his ninth month as dean of the fledgling School of Public Health at Philadelphia's Allegheny University of the Health Sciences. He came here in January from Harvard University, where he was director of the Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

Clements-Mann was a noted AIDS researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

An estimated 30 million people, most of them in developing countries of Asia and Africa, are now infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to the World Health Organization.

At WHO, Mann was among the first public-health officials to sound an alarm about the potential devastation of the global epidemic.

Using his posts at WHO and Harvard as a bully pulpit, Mann sought to make the connection between the AIDS epidemic and human rights, particularly the rights of women in the Third World and racial minorities in the United States.

"If you want an African American man to wear a condom, you have to give him a future," Mann said in an interview earlier this year.

In speeches around the world and in his inch-thick book, AIDS in the World, Mann argued that changes in individual behavior were not enough to quell the AIDS epidemic. In addition, he said, there needed to be fundamental social changes, such as education and job training for women in the Third World.

He preached the same message in Philadelphia as he laid out a vision for a school of public health that would train health professionals to push for better education, jobs and self-determination for poor people in inner-city neighborhoods.

Even as Mann was articulating his vision, however, Allegheny was crumbling from under him. The university's parent company declared bankruptcy after he arrived in Philadelphia, leaving Mann with few financial resources to build his program.

On his agenda for meetings this week in Geneva, said a WHO official, were discussions about the possibility of returning to WHO to work under the agency's new director-general, who is giving heightened emphasis to the AIDS epidemic.

Mann had resigned from his WHO post in 1990 after a bitter fight with then-WHO director-general Hiroshi Nakajima, who he felt was not aggressive enough in attacking AIDS.

Dorothy McKenna Brown, interim president of Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, called Mann's death "a tragic loss" to the university community and the world. "In his few short months at this university . . . he has made a tremendous impact on the character of the newly formed School of Public Health."

In an interview this year, Mann said he left his prestigious job at Harvard for the new post at Allegheny so he could have an opportunity to build a public-health curriculum from the ground up and live closer to his wife, whom he married in 1996.

A dapper man who wore starched white shirts and red bowties, Mann commuted by train to Philadelphia each day from the couple's home in Columbia, Md. He used his time on the train to do paperwork, which he carried in a suitcase-sized briefcase.

Clements-Mann, 51, was Mann's partner not only in marriage but also in work. An immunologist and professor of international health at Hopkins, she was regarded as one of the nation's leading experts in launching and overseeing clinical trials of experimental vaccines against a wide variety of infectious diseases.

Alfred Sommer, dean of the Hopkins School of Public Health, noted that the two met while collaborating on new strategies to fight disease. It was a second marriage for both. Said Sommer, "Their loss will be felt deeply by all of us here and by the thousands, if not millions, of people who live better lives today because of their work."

At the time of her death, Clements-Mann was principal investigator of an AIDS vaccine trial sponsored by the U.S. government in several American cities, including Philadelphia. A trial of the same vaccine is about to begin in Uganda, and Clements-Mann was hopeful about early data showing that the vaccine might be effective against strains of HIV found not just in North America but in Africa as well.

Mann, too, pushed for an AIDS vaccine - so much so that he riled the scientific establishment when he recently said that top government scientists were violating human rights by failing to move more swiftly on an AIDS vaccine.

Even so, many of those scientists had praise for Mann yesterday. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that Mann had made "pioneering contributions" to the AIDS field and that his death would leave "an important vacuum."

Jane Shull, executive director of Philadelphia FIGHT, which conducts community-based clinical trials of AIDS drugs and vaccines, called Mann's contribution to AIDS research "beyond measure."

She added: "He constantly reminded us there is a moral element in all that we are doing and that AIDS does not exist in isolation but among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in society."

Mann, a physician and epidemiologist, began his work in the AIDS field in the early 1980s when he investigated the epidemic in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. At the time, the leaders of many African countries claimed they had no AIDS epidemic because they had few homosexuals and the AIDS virus was transmitted through sex between men.

But Mann showed that the epidemic in Africa was fueled primarily by unprotected heterosexual sex, enabling public-health officials to begin combating it with prevention programs.

"His major contribution was that he did not tolerate any nonsense," said Mathilde Krim, founder and board chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Peter Piot, director of the World Health Organization's AIDS program who had been awaiting Mann in Geneva, called his friend and colleague "irreplaceable." Mann, he said, had "rediscovered the roots of public health" by connecting medical science with human rights, poverty and social change.

Piot and other WHO staff in Geneva held an impromptu memorial service for Mann and his wife yesterday. Arrangements for memorial services in the United States were not complete late yesterday. Mann is survived by three children.

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