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An Amazing Human Being

If you chanced upon Elmer Pfefferkorn as he was out for one of his daily walks, you would never guess from his humble demeanor that he's an internationally recognized scientist and a much-loved teacher of parasitology and virology.

By Laura Stephenson Carter

When Dr. Elmer Pfefferkorn talks, Dartmouth medical students listen:

Hepatitis A was sweeping through a U.S. military base, so an infectious disease team from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) swooped in to investigate.

Not a single rustle or cough can be heard as the students settle in to hear Pfefferkorn illustrate a point with yet another of his famous stories.

Early on, the CDC investigators made a useful observation—all of the cases were in officers; none were in enlisted men. This pointed very strongly to a foodborne epidemic, but everyone on the base ate exactly the same meals and the food was prepared in the same kitchen. So there went the food hypothesis, the investigators figured.

But the team had made some progress. So at the day's end, when the base commander invited the visitors to join the officers for dinner, they accepted the offer. As the first course was served, the commander urged the investigators to try the special salad dressing that was served only to officers. Now these were experienced epidemiologists. They'd heard the key words "only to officers," so they all very politely refused.

The students laugh.

The next day, of course, the top thing on the team's list was to look into that salad dressing. They learned that it was made by an old master sergeant and that he was scrupulously careful about following procedures. He washed his hands compulsively, and he wore gloves whenever it was appropriate. It didn't seem likely that he could be involved in the epidemic.

But just to be sure, the investigators asked for the ingredients of the salad

For more than 40 years, Pfefferkorn has held DMS students in his thrall with the power of his stories.

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Laura Carter is Dartmouth Medicine's associate editor. The story about Hepatitis A that begins this feature, as well as the comments by alumni and colleagues in the sidebar, have been lightly edited to aid comprehension in this context. However, as is Dartmouth Medicine's standard practice, all comments in quotation marks represent exactly what the quoted individual said.

If you'd like to offer feedback about this article, we'd welcome getting your comments at DartMed@Dartmouth.edu.

This article may not be reproduced or reposted without permission. To inquire about permission, contact DartMed@Dartmouth.edu.

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