1937 – 2021
John G. Bartlett, MD
Dr. John Bartlett, an iconic and visionary leader in infectious diseases and HIV/AIDS died on January 19, 2021, at the age of 83. Dr. Bartlett was an original principal investigator in what became the ACTG and a legendary scientist, clinician, teacher, and writer who made major contributions to an astonishingly wide range of infectious disease threats. In addition to his leadership within the ACTG, Dr. Bartlett played a pivotal role in leading numerous other professional and public health entities, including co-chairing the Department of Health and Human Services HIV Guidelines Panel, serving as president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and chairing the board of directors of Baltimore’s Health Education Resources Organization (HERO), one of the earliest AIDS advocacy groups in the country.
Born in upstate New York, John studied medicine at SUNY Syracuse, was an intern at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, and a resident at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, where he planned to become a cardiologist. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1965 and sent to Vietnam where he helped run a hospital that cared for soldiers with a variety of infections. Returning to the U.S., he decided to study infectious diseases because “you can look in the microscope and see the enemy.” He began studying anaerobic infections and helped elucidate the causes of both pulmonary and abdominal infections caused by anaerobes, publishing a number of seminal papers on the subject. He then focused his attention on antibiotic-associated colitis, and discovered the toxin produced by Clostridium difficile (C. diff) that caused the disease. His landmark study of C. diff colitis, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, led to the development of diagnostic tests and treatments for this extremely common and debilitating disease.
John was recruited to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1980 to lead the Infectious Disease division and over the next 26 years built it into a global leader across the entire spectrum of infectious diseases. In 1982, his interests shifted to the AIDS epidemic and he and his colleague Frank Polk mobilized resources within the institution to both care for patients and better understand the disease. He created the second dedicated inpatient AIDS ward in the world, after San Francisco General Hospital, and recruited a multidisciplinary team of clinicians to provide care and develop treatments.
Over the next 30+ years he became an internationally renowned expert in HIV therapeutics, always driven by his own direct involvement in caring for patients. John maintained a busy clinic caring for people living with HIV and other infections, taught on the inpatient wards, and always attended on the AIDS Ward on Christmas, giving gifts to every patient while wearing a Santa hat. He befriended Garey Lambert, a prominent local AIDS activist who had written highly critical articles about the medical community’s response to the epidemic. John and Garey became close friends; Garey relied on John’s insights into HIV research, and John brought Garey to scientific meetings, including ACTG meetings, to both learn and provide community perspective to researchers and clinicians. Following Garey’s death, the Hopkins HIV Research Clinic was named in his honor, and a large portrait of Garey hung over John’s desk for the remainder of his career.
John was one of the most sought-after speakers on HIV and infectious diseases. He lectured around the world with an absolutely brilliant ability to synthesize data, explain it to scientists, clinicians, and laypeople, and look into the future to predict what would come next. John’s “Top 10” lists of advances in HIV and infectious diseases were extremely popular talks at conferences and have been emulated by many. He was an early adopter of internet tools, establishing an HIV website, conducting online clinical conferences for clinicians in Ethiopia, Uganda, and India, and pioneering telemedicine for inmates in the Maryland state prison system. His teaching in the classroom and at the bedside was equally awe-inspiring, with his encyclopedic knowledge and insightful interpretation. He wrote prodigiously, producing dozens of books, including his “Pocket Guide to HIV Infection” and “The Medical Management of HIV Infection,” now in their 19th and 17th editions, respectively. In addition to HIV, he was a leader in areas as diverse as bioterrorism, emerging infections, community-acquired pneumonia, and antimicrobial resistance.
John was famed for his extraordinary work ethic, maintaining a schedule that made most people weary just to think about. He arrived at his office in the wee hours of the morning and worked for 15 hours, but still managed to be home for dinner and spend the evening with his wife Jean and their three children, Valerie, Josh, and Scott. He explained his secret to me once when he returned from a two-week vacation with Jean in Australia and showed me the hand-written manuscript he had produced while they were there, the first edition of his “Pocket Guide to HIV/AIDS.” I scolded him and told him he was supposed to have been on vacation, and he responded, “Yes, but you have to understand that Jean sleeps at night.” In addition to time spent with his family, John was a talented artist, and he once took a sabbatical to Paris to paint.
Following his retirement in 2014, John and Jean moved to Tupelo, Mississippi, where he continued to write, read, lecture, and serve on committees, but he was able to spend even more time with friends and family. Sadly, Jean Bartlett died in October 2020.
In 2016 the Johns Hopkins HIV and viral hepatitis clinics were merged into a magnificent new facility named The John G. Bartlett Specialty Practice. The clinic continues the work that John began 36 years ago, caring for people from all walks of life with HIV infection.
John’s death is a huge loss to the HIV and medical communities. He commented at his retirement, “It would be difficult to find another discipline in medicine that has such extraordinary diversity, surprises, value in patient care, and clinical relevance for both domestic and international applications.” Similarly, it would be difficult to name another individual who contributed more to our understanding of, provided better care for, or helped educate more practitioners to combat the diverse spectrum of microbes that threaten human health and happiness than John Bartlett.
 Bartlett JG. Why infectious diseases. Clin Infect Dis. 2014, 59(suppl 2):S85–S92,