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Howard Markel

Howard Markel

Medical historian

by Eve Silberman

From the December, 2017 issue

When Howard Markel was a U-M medical student in the early 1980s, the world was just beginning to grapple with a mysterious new epidemic. During a rotation at a Detroit hospital, he watched as a skinny, terrified young man with an advanced case of AIDS arrived on a gurney. After the attending physician examined the man, he said, "That's what you get for your so-called lifestyle." Markel was horrified.

A few years later, while working on a PhD in the history of science, medicine, and technology at Johns Hopkins, his first wife died from a rare cancer. In her final year, some friends stopped visiting. "She felt stigmatized," Markel recalls.

Those bitter experiences inspired his PhD thesis, which in turn grew into the book Quarantine!: East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemic of 1892. It described the way frightened New Yorkers vented their rage on newly arrived Jewish immigrants they suspected--with some reason--of causing outbreaks of typhus and cholera. A later book, When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed, recounted how fear of disease fueled the xenophobia that led to the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924.

Today, Markel is an internationally recognized expert on contagious diseases--and on how societies respond to them. As demonstrated yet again in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the response is often panic and persecution.

"We are a global village," Markel told the New York Times in a 2014 front-page story on the Ebola epidemic. "Germs have always traveled. The problem now is they can travel with the speed of a jet plane."


Markel, fifty-seven, occupies a spacious, wood-paneled office in the neoclassical Simpson Memorial Institute on Observatory St. The chatty, dark-haired physician rests his legs on the handsome wooden desk to keep comfortable. He suffers from near-chronic back pain, which, to his regret, forced him to give up practice as a pediatrician.

He now directs the U-M Center

...continued below...

for the History of Medicine and teaches the history of medicine in the med school and "Medicine and Literature" at the Residential College (whose students voted him "hot" on He also writes a monthly column for the PBS NewsHour website.

The U-M, he notes, "didn't have someone like me before. They don't need someone like me, frankly!" But though the center is small, it keeps busy; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other governmental units, and medical scholars turn to it--and to Markel.

A dozen years ago, he got a call from the Pentagon. There'd been an outbreak of avian flu, and they wanted to hire him as a consultant. Markel says he discouraged the caller, warning, "I'm very expensive." The caller replied, "Dr. Markel, we're the Department of Defense."

Fearing a possible new epidemic, the feds hired Markel to study "non-pharmaceutical" responses to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed some 50 million people around the world, including 675,000 in the U.S. Some American communities suffered many more deaths than others: Defense wanted to know why.

Markel hired a team of researchers to study seven communities in depth. They discovered, he says, that the less affected communities "shut their doors to flu" by quarantining sick individuals and banning public gatherings like dances or baseball games.

The avian flu scare passed--it turned out the virus did not move easily from birds to humans--but after the project ended, Markel found other funds to research many more communities, resulting in, the most comprehensive website on the 1918 epidemic in America.


Raised in the Detroit suburbs, the son of a stockbroker and bookkeeper, Markel decided in high school to "be a doctor who wrote." As a U-M undergrad he majored in English, happily devouring the classics. As a medical resident, he found he couldn't nap during the four-hour break in his twenty-four-hour shifts, so he wrote instead.

Markel's latest book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek surprised some readers who, accustomed to his medical histories, wondered why he was writing about cereal barons. "I look for good stories, and I have a tendency to find them," he explains. And medicine figures prominently in the story of the Michigan siblings.

John Kellogg (1852-1943) was a physician and Seventh Day Adventist. An early advocate of health foods, he shunned meat and advocated for soy and grain products. His books, articles, and lectures made him famous, drawing famous visitors like Sojourner Truth, Thomas Edison, and Amelia Earhart, as well as thousands of ordinary people, to his Battle Creek "sanitarium." Those who checked in followed Kellogg's healthy, meat-free diet; exercised on primitive workout machines; took enemas; and attended evening lectures.

John's younger brother, Will (1860-1951), a brilliant administrator, kept the "San" thriving financially but was treated with contempt by his older brother. He broke away and, in 1906, bought a small corn flake factory John had started. Thanks to shrewd marketing and added sugar, Will's version took off quickly, prompting John to bring out his own line of wheat and rice flakes.

The brothers were soon in court, feuding over the rights to sell cereals under the Kellogg name. After a decade of legal wrangling, a judge ruled in Will's favor. The brothers died estranged.


Markel still has a Tony the Tiger bowl that he bought on a first-grade class trip to the Kellogg plant in Battle Creek. As a young adult, cramming in the U-M medical library, he was intrigued to discover copies of John Kellogg's monthly magazine, Good Health. In a recent NPR interview with Terry Gross, he recalled, "I thought at the time ... somebody ought to write a book about these two fellows." Six years ago, he finally got around to it.

The Kellogg PR people froze him out (the family no longer runs the company), but he pored through about 150 boxes of John's papers at the Bentley, plus dozens more at MSU. He doesn't use assistants because, he says, "I don't want to miss anything.

"I love every process of [writing] a book!" he exclaims. "Thinking about it, revising it, playing with it--I love that process. I'm lucky enough to have found a niche and a job that allows me to do it."

A divorced dad of two who lives in Burns Park, he's recently been promoting Battling Brothers, giving talks and attending book fairs. While some writers find such appearances grueling, he says, "I love questions from readers ... they read my book, and that feels wonderful.

"I'm happy a lot," he adds. "I did far better than I deserve. That's the thing about being kicked around by life events--you appreciate what you have."     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2017.]


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