An Amazing Human Being
and making them interesting," agrees Schwartzman. "You could go to a lecture and really get caught up in a topic, no matter whether it was basic virology or parasitology."
One topic that has long caught students' attention—that alumni several decades out of medical school still associate with Pfefferkorn—is the concept of fecal veneer. "The fecal veneer is the theoretical construct that the world is covered with a thin layer of feces," Pfefferkorn explained in a recent lecture on viral hepatitis. "You can't see fecal veneer. You can't smell it. But it's there."
He went on to give the class a quick history lesson: Viral hepatitis, like polio, is transmitted by the oral-fecal or fecal-oral pathway and is very dependent for the frequency of infection on the thickness of the fecal veneer. Before the sanitary revolution, fecal veneer was thick everywhere in the world. Overt disease was rare because everyone was infected early in life and thus developed immunity. Pregnant women probably immunized their fetuses by a transplacental transfer of antibodies.
Consequently, he continued, newborns came into the world with passive immunity and, in the presence of a thick fecal veneer, got infected while they still had passive immunity. They got no disease and ended up with passive immunity that lasted the rest of their lives. But when fecal veneer is thinned out by sewage disposal plants, toilets, and hand-washing facilities, then infection is delayed until late childhood, adolescence, or even adulthood. And these populations are susceptible to severe viral hepatitis.
So ended the lesson on historical epidemiology.
Pfefferkorn knew as far back as he can remember that he wanted to go into medicine. Neither of his parents were scientists, but his father did subscribe to a magazine that young Elmer read eagerly—Popular Science.
"I think most really good basic science teachers . . . try to show students what the relevancy is of basic science to clinical medicine," says Dr. James Strickler, who was dean of DMS when Pfefferkorn was tapped to chair microbiology in 1980. "It's motivational," continues Strickler, "and a good teacher like Elmer . . . knows how to motivate students."