Collaboration Is Contagious at CBR

April 15, 2004

Heather Heilman
Phone: (504) 865-5714

John McLachlan has been explaining how pharmaceuticals of all kinds, including antidepressants and birth control pills, are excreted by humans and end up at the mouth of the Mississippi River. He jokes that New Orleanians should be looking for ways to retrieve, recycle and resell those drugs.

cbr"We could say, 'This antidepressant has been proven effective because it's already been used by six other people.'"

"You know," John Barry responds during a recent conversation in McLachlan's office, "when penicillin was in short supply, they used to reprocess it from patients' urine."

The idea of this ultimate drug recycling is a little gross, but maybe there's something to it. Or maybe not.

In any case, it's fun to listen to McLachlan and Barry bounce ideas off each other. It's a reminder of what exciting places universities can be when people from much-different fields and backgrounds really talk to each other.

"This has been a very productive relationship," said McLachlan, director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. "Having John with us has helped expand our perspective."

Barry is a distinguished visiting scholar at the CBR. He's a student of history, a grad-school dropout and the author of five books, including Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America and the just-released The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. This isn't the first time he's been associated with Tulane--he was on the football coaching staff during the 1973-74 season, the year Tulane beat Louisiana State University in the Sugar Bowl.

He was invited to speak at the CBR after the release of Rising Tide. During the visit, he mentioned to McLachlan that he'd like to see New Orleans develop a good river museum. McLachlan countered that a center for river research would be even more valuable.

Today they are co-founders and directors of RiverSphere, which will be both. While Barry was working on behalf of the RiverSphere project, he was also busy writing The Great Influenza, about the 1918 pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people at a time when the world's population was less than two billion. No one knew what this disease was when the epidemic began. Some thought it was the return of the bubonic plague, others thought it was something entirely new.

But in fact it was an extraordinarily lethal strain of the flu--the same flu we face every winter. And it was exceptionally deadly to young adults. Barry was interested in writing about the epidemic because he thought it would be a good way to look at that historic period.

"Disasters are interesting because people, institutions and societies reveal themselves under pressure," he said. The 1918 epidemic represented the first major battle between nature and modern science, as great pioneers in immunology and molecular biology worked assiduously to figure out what this disease was and how to stop it. It was often also a battle between science and politics.

For example, the disease was called the "Spanish Influenza" not because it began in Spain (it probably emerged in Kansas) but because Spain was one of the few places in the West where journalists freely reported on the epidemic.

Most of the rest of Europe and North America was at war and the press was often prohibited from reporting news that could damage public morale. Barry expected to spend two years writing the book. Instead it took seven years, partly because of the difficulty of finding source material.

"The people I wrote about were too busy doing things to take notes," Barry said. Many people at Tulane helped Barry with his research. He credits staff members at the Rudolph Matas Medical Library for being "remarkably, extraordinarily" helpful, particularly librarian Patsy Copeland, who put great effort into helping him track down material. The late Mitch Friedman, professor of pulmonology, reviewed autopsy reports of epidemic victims with Barry and helped him understand the disease process of pneumonia.

Robert Martensen, professor of humanities and ethics in medicine, helped him with the details of medical history. Barry admits it was hard to write the book while keeping up with work at the CBR. "I'm obsessive and I can't compartmentalize well," he said. He's grateful to McLachlan for being supportive of his writing. McLachlan sees the big picture. "We want to tie the book in with research on emerging infectious diseases at Tulane," he said. "It'll help raise our visibility."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000