On John Quinn

by and Rick Young

We wanted to share the sad news that John Quinn, a veteran Gram-negative researcher featured in Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, passed away last weekend. We knew him only briefly but in that short time he made an enormous contribution to our efforts to understand the importance of this subject and why major pharmaceutical companies have been pulling out of antibiotic development.

We knew companies had been abandoning antibiotic drug development and wanted to help viewers understand what that looked like from the inside. The story of Pfizer soon became an obvious example because the company had such a long history in developing antibiotics and had, until recently, been one of the stalwarts that remained involved in seeking a cure for Gram negatives.

But finding someone who was able to talk about the company and its decision to close down its antibiotic research efforts proved more difficult than we’d anticipated. Though we reached out to many researchers and scientists who had worked at Pfizer, they were all reluctant to speak on camera about the program.

That is until we found John Quinn. Quinn was a doctor by training and had been working in academia on Gram-negative resistance before it became a major public health concern. He watched first hand as resistance grew and doctors he worked with had few options to treat patients. “I’d seen [Gram-negative bacteria] kill patients,” Quinn told us. “I had, you know, seen the drugs that we were using cause kidney failure.  So I was acutely aware — personally aware, professionally aware — of the need to make progress in this space.”

Concern over this growing crisis is what drove him to join Pfizer in 2008, where he hoped he could help guide scientists toward new treatments. “I think all of us felt that, you know, we had a moral obligation to continue to work in this area,” Quinn said.

When we first reached Quinn in May, then living in Cali, Colombia, he needed no convincing to talk about the program he had been deeply committed to — one that had been cut short in 2011. His willingness was all the more admirable given his already declining medical condition. Yet, he made time on a brief family visit back to the United States, to schedule an on-camera interview with us, and remained unfailingly pleasant despite a taxi driver who got lost for an hour on his way to the meeting.

Quinn never got a chance to watch his story air but he did get a chance to tell it. All of us at FRONTLINE have his family in our thoughts. For more about Quinn, see this tribute from friend and colleague David Shlaes.

Rick Young is the producer and Emma Schwartz is the associate producer and reporter of Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria.

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