In 1961, while Don Hopkins was an undergraduate student at Morehouse College, he visited Egypt and was deeply impressed. Not so much with the mysterious antiquities as with the prevalance of the eye infection trachoma. "I decided then and there that I wanted to work on tropical diseases," recalled Hopkins.
He finished his education by getting his MD at the University of Chicago, followed by a master of public health degree at Harvard. Then he got right to work. Smallpox was not strictly a tropical disease, but it was in tropical areas that it was hardest to fight. From 1967 to 1969, Hopkins directed the Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control Program in Sierra Leone, part of the global Smallpox Eradication Program (SEP), then in its infancy. He consulted on other aspects of the program, which was a success, and the last cases of smallpox on Earth occurred in 1978. It is the first and so far only disease eradicated by medical science. Hopkins wrote a book on the history of the disease entitled Princes and Peasants: Smallpox in History, published in 1983 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Hopkins was an assistant professor of tropical public health at the Harvard School of Public Health for three years before joining the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). He eventually became assistant director for international health and then deputy director of the agency. He has served on seven U.S. delegations to the World Health Assembly and received numerous awards, including a 1995 MacArthur Grant. He joined the Carter Center in 1987 as a senior consultant and heads its Global 2000 Guinea Worm Eradication Program.
This program is focused on wiping out another pernicious tropical disease, the parasitic Guinea worm infection. It was estimated to afflict 3.5 million people in 1985, but Hopkins predicts that it will be eradicated by the end of the century. He has applied similar strategies to those used to exterminate smallpox, including an educational component to help people fight infectious and parasitic diseases locally. Hopkins keeps a Guinea worm preserved in a jar of formaldehyde on his desk -- soon she'll be the last one.