Campus & Community

HSPH’s Andrew Spielman dies at 76

5 min read

Expert in vector-borne illnesses malaria, Lyme disease, dengue

When Andrew Spielman was a graduate student in a malaria lab at Johns Hopkins University in 1952, his future was anything but certain. The use of DDT and other insecticides suggested a dramatic curtailing of the spread of mosquitoes – the carriers of the malaria pathogen and additional diseases. But, true to form, the insects proved remarkably resilient, and Spielman embarked on a career that would make him one of the most prominent experts in vector-borne illnesses, such as malaria, Lyme disease, and dengue, in the world. That career ended on Dec. 20, 2006, when Spielman, professor of tropical public health in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), passed away after a sudden illness.

His accomplishments and those of his lab associates read like a brief modern history of public health entomology. HSPH colleagues Richard Pollack and Sam Telford recounted some of them in a draft on which they are working about Spielman: the first description of the life cycles and ecology of the agents of human babesiosis and Lyme disease; a focus on the role of saliva and its production in vectors such as ticks and mosquitoes in transmitting disease; the first uses of growth regulators to interfere with normal mosquito development to aid mosquito control; and the exploration of the possibility that roosting birds play a key part in perpetuating the viruses that cause eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile encephalitis.

Perhaps Spielman will be equally remembered for his sense of humor and his delight in his work. Facile in explaining complex disease cycles, he was as comfortable in describing the bizarre mating rituals of certain mosquitoes or the mechanism by which ticks embed their mouthparts into skin to suck blood. In several interviews with HPH NOW, he seemed captivated with disease transmission, particularly in relation to mosquitoes, which thrive in all corners of the world, and yet, as Spielman pointed out, contribute nothing to ecology and fell humans in the millions with the pathogens they carry.

Recalled Michael D’Antonio, who co-authored a popular book with Spielman, “Mosquito: A Natural History of Our Most Persistent and Deadly Foe,” “Andy was so enthusiastic and energetic. He understood what made his subject matter of interest to everyone. I think a lot of scientists have excitement about their work, but they cannot translate that excitement to the public. Andy knew how to do that.”

Spielman divided his time between the lab and the field. In perhaps the most famous example of his crosscutting work, Spielman traveled to Nantucket in a series of visits in the 1970s to investigate rare outbreaks of human babesiosis, a disease that usually affects animals and that destroys red blood cells. He trapped voles and mice and literally picked ticks from the animals’ skins. He then focused on lab work, successfully infecting hamsters with the babesia protozoa through the bites of infected deer ticks. Through this work, Spielman identified the tick responsible for the so-called “Nantucket fever” and pointed to the white-footed mouse as the pathogen’s reservoir. Later, the same kind of tick was shown to be the vector for Lyme disease.

Spielman encouraged this same kind of marriage between lab and fieldwork among a generation of students and postdoctoral fellows whom he mentored, said Pollack, who worked with Spielman in the Laboratory of Public Health Entomology at HSPH starting in 1988. Said Dyann Wirth, chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, who has known Spielman since the early 1980s, “His greatest legacy may be the people he trained. He won numerous awards for excellence in teaching, and many of his students have gone on to positions of leadership.”

Spielman’s sense of discovery was reflected in his adventurous nature. “I had the pleasure of accompanying Andy on many international travels and travails,” remembered Pollack. “Somehow, he and I survived his shortcuts over guarded fences, past other life-threatening hazards, and some fairly revolting cuisines. Once field trips were scheduled for his classes, there was no changing them, regardless of the weather. The higher the seas – the broader his smile while onboard the ferry to Nantucket.”

Spielman’s daughter, Sue, remembered fondly calling him “Indiana Daddy,” in reference to the intrepid character in the movie “Indiana Jones” played by Harrison Ford. From the time of his college years, said Sue, Spielman reveled in nature – spelunking and climbing cliffs. She recalled spending weekend camping trips as a child on the sand dunes in Provincetown – in winter – as she and her sister accompanied their brother and father on Boy Scout trips led by Spielman.

“He brought a boyish excitement to everything he did,” said Sue Spielman. “I think that inspired people. Science and discovery were central parts of who he was.”

Spielman came to HSPH in 1959 as an instructor in the Department of Tropical Public Health, later the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases. He authored more than 360 publications. “He had a singularly holistic view of the balance between man and mosquitoes and between the biology and ecology of both,” said HSPH Dean Barry Bloom in a press release.

Spielman was also a faculty associate in the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and was head of the Laboratory of Public Health Entomology at HSPH.

He is survived by his wife, Judy, and their children, David, Deborah, and Sue Spielman; seven grandchildren; and by a brother, Herbert Spielman.

– Richard Pollack and Sam Telford contributed to the research for this article.