Walter E. Stamm, MD, a giant in the STD field and in the broader domain of infectious diseases, died at home December 14, 2009, after a two-year battle with malignant melanoma. He was 64 years old. He will be sorely missed, personally as well as professionally.
Walt was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, raised in Portland, Oregon, received a Bachelor of Arts degree with great distinction from Stanford University, graduated Cum Laude from Harvard Medical School, and pursued a residency in internal medicine at the University of Washington (UW). He subsequently served the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as an Epidemiology Intelligence Service officer and then as chief of the Hospital Infections Branch, before returning to Seattle and the UW as Chief Resident in Medicine at Harborview Medical Center, followed by a research fellowship in infectious diseases. Walt remained at UW, rose to the rank of Professor of Medicine with an adjunct appointment in the Department of Epidemiology, and between 1994 and 2007 served as Chief of the UW Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Walt authored or coauthored over 350 research articles, almost 200 reviews and book chapters, and 11 books, and was co-editor of the textbook Sexually Transmitted Diseases, now in its fourth edition.
It is no exaggeration that few people in history have had as much influence as Walt on STD prevention. His research helped define the clinical spectrum of Chlamydia trachomatis infections, the use of culture and later of nucleic acid amplification testing for the diagnosis of chlamydial infection, the efficacy of single-dose azithromycin in chlamydia treatment, the importance of cotreatment of gonorrhea with drugs active against C. trachomatis, the practical implementation of screening for chlamydial infection, and the population-level benefit of chlamydia screening to prevent pelvic inflammatory disease. He defined the urethral syndrome in women, with links to both STD and nonsexually transmitted etiologies. All of these now are mainstays of STD prevention and directly promote women's reproductive health. With his colleagues, Walt determined the etiologic spectrum of sexually transmitted colorectal infections in men who have sex with men, in the course of which his laboratory discovered two hitherto unknown bacterial pathogens, Helicobacter (originally Campylobacter) fennelliae (graciously named by Walt for one of his technologists, not for himself) and H. cinaedi.
Walt's studies documented the dramatic discrepancy between population-level STD morbidity and the level and quality of STD training in US medical schools, which directly contributed to elevated standards for STD education of health professionals. His research was instrumental in advancing the understanding of the pathogenesis and biology of chlamydial infections, and he wrote one of the first papers that documented an association of herpes-related genital ulcer disease with HIV infection. His studies on urinary tract infection (UTI) documented the current microbiologic standard for diagnosis of UTI of 103 organisms per mL of urine, established the utility and effectiveness of now-standard short-course antibiotic therapy, defined the role of sexual intercourse in the pathogenesis of UTI in women, established the efficacy of postcoital antimicrobial prophylaxis to prevent UTI, and determined the biologic determinants of adherence of enteric bacteria to uroepithelial cells, a critical step in the pathogenesis of UTI. Walt also made important contributions to the understanding of hospital acquired infections.
Walt's legacy also includes outstanding contributions to the STD field and infectious diseases through the education and training of other scientists. He directly mentored more than 30 predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees, most of whom have gone on to make their own important academic and public health contributions. Beyond his own trainees, Walt had a profound effect on the professional careers of many more colleagues, including scientists both junior and senior to him. He was unfailingly available to provide thoughtful and incisive criticism—always constructive, gentle, and supportive—to anyone who was clever enough, and sufficiently wise, to seek his advice.
Even these accomplishments understate Walt's contributions to STD research and prevention. Three decades ago, early in Walt's research career, STDs were a stepchild to other infectious diseases. They were widely perceived as having uncertain importance and had earned limited respect, even within the infectious diseases subspecialty and certainly the broad field of medicine, and they received suboptimal research funding. Walt's research accomplishments in both STDs and nonsexually transmitted infectious diseases, and the personal and professional respect he enjoyed, markedly elevated the visibility, credibility, and respect now accorded our field. In addition, Walt's research easily traversed the intellectual and practical divides between the bench, the bedside, and the community. Few investigators in STD or other infectious diseases have made as important contributions as Walt did across the scientific spectrum, from laboratory research in microbiology and pathogenesis, to the bedside in diagnosis and clinical management, to training and education of health professionals at all levels, and to population-level prevention.
Unsurprisingly in view of his scientific accomplishments, Walt received numerous honors and accolades and held many important administrative positions. He was the 2000 recipient of the Thomas Parran Award, bestowed by the American STD Association for lifetime contributions to STD science and prevention, and earlier (1995) had received the American STD Association Achievement Award. For nearly two decades he directed the Seattle STD/HIV Prevention Training Center, one of several such centers that are the mainstay of CDC's national STD training efforts. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Omega Alpha (the national medical school honors society), and over the years received the prestigious Squibb Award of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), the Sanofi-Aventis Award of the American Society for Microbiology, and CDC's Alexander Langmuir Memorial Lectureship, among several others. Walt was IDSA president in 2005–2006, having previously served IDSA for several years as a councilor and member of the Board of Directors. He served on and often chaired numerous guidelines committees, including several cycles of CDC's STD Treatment Guidelines, the National Advisory Committee on Chlamydial Infections, the Food and Drug Administration-IDSA committee on Antimicrobial Trials for Urinary Tract Infections, and the Institute of Medicine Forum on Emerging Infections, among others.
At a personal level, Walt was a delight to know, respected and loved by the many people who had the privilege of being his colleagues and friends. His professional successes were achieved with unmatched grace, style, and good humor. He was accomplished at all he attempted, from academics to the athletic field. He was a star athlete in high school and college, a superb tennis player and skier his entire life, and an excellent fisherman and outdoorsman. But Walt was most proud of his family legacy. He met Peggy when they were students at Stanford and was at her side through her own tragically early demise because of metastatic cancer in 2008. Walt and Peggy are survived by their children Hillary, Lindsay, and Andrew, well on the way to their own personal and professional successes.
The University of Washington Foundation (available at: www.uwfoundation.org) is accepting donations to the Walter E. Stamm, MD, Memorial Fund, which will support research in STD and other infectious diseases in Walt's areas of interest. Readers wishing to send personal greetings to Hillary, Lindsay, and Andrew Stamm may contact the editors at [email protected].