Donald Hopkins headshot

Donald Hopkins

Special Advisor for Guinea Worm Eradication, The Carter Center

As an undergraduate at Morehouse College, Dr. Donald Hopkins received one of four Charles E. Merrill Jr Scholarships to study abroad in 1960-61, and was the only recipient who went to Vienna. Since before the age of six, Donald knew he wanted to be a doctor, but it was on a visit to Egypt during that year abroad – when he saw flies around people’s eyes as they suffered from an infection causing blindness – that he knew he wanted to focus on tropical diseases. After graduating from University of Chicago Medical School, Dr. Hopkins went on to serve at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then joined The Carter Center in 1987 to lead their efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease. Under his leadership, the number of cases worldwide has been reduced from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 22 in 2015, and it is slated to become only the second human disease in history to be eradicated, after smallpox. Now semi-retired, Dr. Hopkins takes a look back at how studying abroad inspired his desire to serve underserved populations and impacted his career in international public health.

IES Abroad: As a student at Morehouse College, what led you to study abroad in Vienna?

Dr. Hopkins: Charles E. Merrill Jr was on the board of trustees at Morehouse College at the time, and he was awarding four scholarships to Morehouse students and two to Spelman students each year. I was selected for one of them. I elected to go to Vienna because I was pre-med and my biology professor said German would be most helpful to me in medical school. Another Merrill Scholar attended Vienna the year before me and had a really good experience. My family would never have been able to afford a trip like that. I am deeply grateful to Charles E. Merrill Jr because there is no way that I could buy back that experience in my life later on. It was a great, great year.

IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from studying abroad?

DR: Because of my interest in Africa, I attended a Friends (Quaker) House lecture, and I met a young Austrian graduate student who was studying African music and who had recently come back from hitchhiking all over Africa for over a year. He had a jazz band in Vienna, and I hung out with him and his friends. We both played the clarinet, and so we became lifelong friends. Gerhard Kubik is now a distinguished music ethnologist at the University of Vienna. Another lifelong German friend I met during the boat going over to Europe. He had been in Canada visiting his grandmother and was on his way back to Germany. After my year in Vienna, I visited him near Hannover. From Hannover, I went to Berlin with him on a moped in August 1961. While we were in Berlin, I stayed with him and his grandmother, and we watched the nightly news together. I noticed that the lead story was always about how many refugees had crossed over into West Berlin that day. I left Berlin and headed to Copenhagen, and it was there that I read a newspaper and realized that just after I left Berlin the East Germans had begun building the Berlin Wall. My parents were worried because I told them I was going to Berlin, but a week later, they did get my postcard from Copenhagen and knew I was alright.

IES Abroad: What any significant challenges you faced during study abroad?

DR: For me, there really weren’t any daunting challenges. Learning German was difficult, but the benefit of studying German was that I learned a lot about the English language that I didn’t know previously. You should also know that I came to Morehouse on an early admission scholarship that was also courtesy of Charles E. Merrill Jr. I arrived at Morehouse after my 10th grade year, still 15 years old at the time and all of 87 ½ pounds. I had not studied English a lot by that time. So, in studying German, I learned a lot about precision in the English language, and that became very important to me in my professional career. Even now, I’m a fanatic about the usage of pronouns because if you aren’t careful, people won’t know which proper noun to which you are referring. In German, you have three cases, so you could be very specific that way. And that is just one example. I also studied Russian a little bit while I was there.

IES Abroad: Did you have an 'ah ha' moment during study abroad that changed the way you think?

DR: During that study abroad year, four of us got together and went during the break by train to Istanbul and through Greece and then by ship to Egypt. When we were in Egypt, I began noticing all the flies around people’s eyes. I didn’t know what it was, but I noticed they had pathology in their eyes – a disease called trachoma. I was struck by that, and that experience made me decide there in Egypt in February of 1961 that I wanted to study tropical diseases. I was fortunate in that when I got to the University of Chicago Medical School, I got to work with Dr. Lewert who was researching tropical diseases. We had elective time for research, which was unique in medical schools at that time. He helped me write and present my first scientific paper. I knew from before the age of six that I wanted to be a doctor, but that experience in Egypt really set me on my way and helped me focus on my specialty.

IES Abroad: Can you point to any specific things you learned or experienced in Vienna that contributed to the skills you have drawn upon throughout your career in public health?

DR: The main thing that Vienna gave me was a burning desire to serve underserved people. I was one of 10 children in my family. My mother was a seamstress and cleaned other people’s houses. My father was a carpenter. We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t consider ourselves poor, but money was a constraint. I felt so much empathy for the people I saw in Egypt. At Morehouse, before and after Vienna, I was buried in science and math classes, so I didn’t have time to study the humanities and I had no time to study history. In Vienna, I could revel in all of that. I remember walking past the Habsburg crypts in Vienna. That experience helped me when I later on wrote about the history of smallpox. It gave me the context that those archdukes and duchesses and Emperor Joseph I all died of smallpox. I did research at the Austrian National Library, and I found out in a daily gazette that two weeks prior to his illness Emperor Joseph I had visited a hospital. That was a classic way that people contracted the disease. Smallpox devastated the Habsburg household under Maria Theresa.

IES Abroad: After you first started leading the efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease in 1980, there were an estimated 3.5 million cases in 21 countries in 1986. Now, it is down to 22 cases worldwide in 2015. What are the next steps, and are you optimistic the disease will be eradicated in your lifetime?

DR: I started working on it at the CDC in 1980, and then in 1986, we were able to get President Carter and The Carter Center interested. I came over to The Carter Center in 1987. I definitely expect that Guinea worm disease will be eradicated soon. In 2014, we had 126 cases remaining. In 2015, there were 22 cases. In December 2015 and January 2016, we had no cases worldwide. We may have a few cases this year, or we may have no cases. When I started there were cases in Africa, Pakistan, Yemen, and India. The few recent cases have all been in Africa. 

IES Abroad: You have improved the lives of millions of people through your work to eradicate Guinea worm disease, smallpox, and river blindness. When you reflect back on your career, what are you most proud of?

DR: Number one is the reduction of the needless suffering of human beings and people who, through no fault of their own, are born into circumstances where they face challenges that are preventable. Secondly, my work with students and encouraging and inspiring them to take up public health as a career, including international public health. I am gratified although my parents and teachers are gone. I want to recognize their faith, devotion, and help they all provided to me over the course of my career to be able to accomplish what I have done.

IES Abroad: You recently retired as Vice President for Health Programs at The Carter Center, but have remained active as their Special Advisor for Guinea Worm Eradication. What other activities are you pursuing in retirement?

DR: I’m going to finish the Guinea Worm Eradication Campaign. And then I will write a book about the story that talks about the lessons we learned from this life work so that students in the future can have the benefit of this experience even though they didn’t live it.

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for pre-med students today who are considering study abroad but worried about fitting it into their busy academic curriculum?

DR: Students should leap at the opportunity to study abroad. As a physician, most people can learn the technical side of medicine. Your ability to understand other people as human beings will be greatly enhanced by spending a year abroad at that point in your life and career. I also advise them to read as much as they can before they go, relevant to what they are studying abroad. If you are going to Vienna, be sure to see the movie, Woman in Gold, which tells an important historical story. I would caution students today not to be distracted by their devices, social media, or email that might keep one engaged in American culture. The great part of study abroad is being able to immerse yourself in another culture, and you should take every advantage to do that while you are abroad.