His cholera quest: The remarkable achievements of Dr. Sack

Dr. SackR. Bradley “Brad” Sack, M.D. ’60, M.S. ’60, found himself volunteering at a Guatemalan hospital in the spring of 1960.

He was a fourth-year University of Oregon Medical School (OHSU’s predecessor) student abroad for the first time, and he saw intestinal worms, leishmaniasis and other diseases unknown in the U.S. The experience, funded by a Louisiana State University fellowship, opened his eyes to international medicine. “That fellowship was critical,” said Dr. Sack, a Professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It got me started.”

Dr. Sack went on to a long career in international medicine, one that has profoundly affected global health. His clinical and scientific work at the Infectious Diseases Hospital in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, in the 1960s played a key role in the development of oral rehydration therapy (ORT), which has become the worldwide standard for treatment for diarrhea and dehydration. Dr. Sack has traveled the world on behalf of the World Health Organization and U.S. Agency for International Development teaching doctors and other health care professionals how to treat cholera outbreaks with ORT. Notably, ORT has saved countless children and infants, who are particularly susceptible to acute infectious diarrheal diseases such as cholera.

For many years now, Dr. Sack has focused on the science of cholera and other diarrheal diseases. His Kolkata lab was the first to isolate and identify E.coli, the enterotoxigenic Eschericheia coli organism that is one of the major causes of diarrheal disease and death in children and the most common cause of traveler’s diarrhea. He has directed several research projects, and for the last 15 years has been principal investigator on a National Institutes of Health-funded study called “Epidemiology and Ecology of Vibrio cholera in Bangladesh.”

His battle with cholera has also been personal. He almost died of the disease in 1997 if not for nine liters of IV fluid and 10 liters of oral rehydration solution given at a Bangladeshi hospital.

For his outstanding work, Dr. Sack was awarded the 2011 Donald Mackay Medal, one of the highest honors in tropical medicine. This year, the School of Medicine Alumni Association awarded Dr. Sack its Richard T. Jones, M.D., Ph.D. Distinguished Alumni Scientist Award, which will be presented to Dr. Sack at its annual banquet in May.

Remarkably, he’s just one of four Sack family members with an OHSU M.D. Two brothers, William, M.D. ’60, and Robert, M.D. ’67, became OHSU professors of psychiatry. And youngest brother David, M.D. ’68, joined Brad at Johns Hopkins, pursuing a career in international health as well.

Dr. SackIn 1999, Dr. Bradley Sack and his wife Josephine generously gave $50,000 to endow the R. Bradley Sack International Scholarship Fund that supports OHSU medical students seeking opportunities for international clinical experience. “I donated because I realize how much having an experience like mine in Guatemala can change your life,” Dr. Sack said.

The fund is making a difference. Lindsay Braun, a fourth-year medical student and scholarship recipient, traveled to Puerto Escondido, Mexico last year, where she participated in clinical rotations and assessed community views on type 2 diabetes. “My time in Puerto Escondido allowed me to analyze how my future career and international medicine might intersect in the coming years,” said Braun, who plans to go into family medicine.

Though a stroke has slowed the 76-year-old down, in January he traveled to Bangladesh to check on his study. Occasionally, he permits himself to think about the difference he’s made in people’s lives around the world. But Dr. Sack doesn’t like the spotlight, preferring instead to shine the light of science into a microscopic stew that is always poised to wreak havoc in our guts and extinguish life.


Pictured: (top)  R. Bradley Sack, M.D. ’60, M.S. ’60 visits a Bangladeshi hospital (bottom) Dr. Sack meets with Bangladeshi villagers in January as part of an NIH-funded study on cholera. Photo credit: Courtesy Dr. Bradley Sack