Dr. Kenrad E. Nelson, a retired Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor who was an infectious disease specialist, died of bone marrow failure April 21 at Sinai Hospital. He was 89 and lived in Mount Washington.
Born in Harvey, Illinois, he was the son of Rachel Cunningham and J. Edwin Nelson, an immigrant from Sweden, who worked in factories and was a minor league baseball player.
He attended DePauw University and was a graduate of Northwestern Medical School. He did his residency at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
Early in his career he took on extra jobs — he did insurance medical exams, was a medic at the Cook County Jail and did home deliveries through the Chicago Maternity Center. He also assisted a classmate who had a job as a medic at Chicago Blackhawks hockey games. He remained a Blackhawks and White Sox fan.
During his first year of residency at Cook County Hospital, Dr. Nelson met his future wife, Karen Barkas, who was a physician and then an intern who went on to specialize in pediatrics. They met at Ward 15.
“He was involved in his research but also having fun,” his wife said. “He tended to be late for events because he was always working on two or more other things.”
Dr. Nelson had an interest in infectious diseases and he joined the U.S. Public Health Service and worked in a then-new division, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
His family said he had adventures involving bats, irrigation ditches, college cafeterias and Native American gatherings.
He went on to work at the University of Illinois School of Medicine, and from there became a consultant at the new Chiang Mai University Medical Center in the north of Thailand.
“He found his real calling, learning about new diseases, working with local medical faculty and working in the field collecting information about diseases in Thailand, and how to study and control them,” said a family obituary. “Karen and Kenrad travelled half-way around the world to Thailand with the four children they had by then acquired; and then returned with five.”
While overseas, he worked effectively with the persons he met and got to understand their customs and cultures.
“He also developed a mastery of managing the bureaucratic and political complexities required for multinational scientific projects,” the family obituary said. “These skills remained an important part of his professional success for the remainder of his career.”
He moved to Baltimore in 1986 and joined the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and was an academic advisor and mentor to 31 graduate students.
During his career he published 481 published scientific papers and was elected as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was an editor of a textbook on infectious disease epidemiology.
He received an honorary doctor of public health degree from the king of Thailand after he worked in the country and assisted the country develop a department of infectious disease.
“The awards ceremony was outdoors and the king sat under a canopy,” his wife said.
He was a past president of the American Epidemiologic Society. He received a medal from the U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation as an “effective spokesperson for the power of international collaboration”.
“Ken was always up for an adventure. He traveled to some of the toughest places in the world. He cared deeply about disenfranchised communities and helped improve the health of places that needed it the most,” said Dr. Robert “Bob” Bollinger, a Hopkins colleague and friend. “He was a great colleague, mentor and traveling companion. You laughed a lot with him. He was just a great person to be around.”
Friends said Dr. Nelson never met a man or meal he didn’t like. He experienced the food, drink, customs, religious rituals, history, politics and geography where he worked.
He also took photographs and brought home trinkets which he enthusiastically shared with friends and family.
When he returned from a long journey, it was his practice to fall into a hibernation-like sleep that lasted 15 to 20 hours, his family said.
Dr. Nelson was a champion of fairness and equal rights for all. He was an active civil rights advocate, having marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Cicero, Illinois. He was a past member of the Oak Park (Illinois) Citizen’s Committee for Human Rights and an advocate for gay men during the early years of HIV/AIDS.
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Dr. Nelson was a gun control advocate. His family described him as an “unabashed liberal.”
They said he embraced intellectualism.
“Ken was always on top of the important ideas that were discussed by leading historians, scientists and economists of the day,” his wife said. “Our coffee table was always stacked with the latest books from current scholars.”
She said that he could be intolerant, and frequently non-observant, of rules and regulations he didn’t think made sense or were needed.
“His primary intolerance was for anyone or anything which stood in the way of his research, but other things like passwords or Republicans could also draw his ire,” she said.
Dr. Nelson is survived by his wife of 60 years, a retired pediatrician who worked with the Baltimore City Health Department; two sons, Eric Nelson of Bexley, Ohio and Joel Nelson of Lanham; three daughters, Elizabeth Williams of Baltimore, Linnea Cheseldine of Towson and Tida Nelson of Baltimore; and ten grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 4 at Brown Memorial Park Avenue Church in Bolton Hill where he attended services.