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Open Access Research Article

On the exoneration of Dr. William H. Stewart: debunking an urban legend

Brad Spellberg12* and Bonnie Taylor-Blake3

Author Affiliations

1 Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at Harbor-University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center, Torrance, CA, USA

2 The David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, USA

3 University of North Carolina School of Medicine Chapel Hill, Wilmington, NC, USA

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Infectious Diseases of Poverty 2013, 2:3  doi:10.1186/2049-9957-2-3

Published: 18 February 2013

Abstract

Background

It is one of the most infamous quotes in the history of biomedicine: “It is time to close the book on infectious diseases, and declare the war against pestilence won.” Long attributed to the United States Surgeon General, Dr. William H. Stewart (1965-1969), the statement is frequently used as a foil by scientific and lay authors to underscore the ever-increasing problems of antibiotic-resistant and emerging infections. However, the primary source for the quote has never been identified.

Methods

We undertook a comprehensive search of multiple databases encompassing medical literature, news articles, and congressional records to attempt to identify sources for the quote.

Results

No source of the quote was identified. However, a trail of source documents was identified that clearly serves as the basis for subsequent, incorrect attribution of the quote to Dr. Stewart. In multiple source documents, Dr. Stewart made statements to the opposite effect, clearly recognizing that infectious diseases had not been conquered. The urban legend was created by a combination of lack of primary witnesses to the originating speech, misunderstanding of points made by Dr. Stewart in the speech, and increasing societal concern about emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.

Conclusions

Attribution to Dr. Stewart of a belief that it was time to close the book on infectious diseases is an urban legend; he never made any such statement. Numerous other verifiable sources, however, confirm that other people in academia adopted this belief. Dr. Stewart should no longer be cited in this regard, and should be replaced with verifiable sources.

Keywords:
William H. Stewart; Urban legend; History of antibiotics; Antibiotic development; Antibiotic crisis; Public policy