CDC’s Public Health Library and Information Center was officially renamed the Stephen B. Thacker CDC Library during a dedication ceremony on July 11 at the Roybal campus. Family members, friends, colleagues and guests gathered to remember and honor Stephen B. Thacker, MD, MSc, ASG/RADM (ret), USPHS—a true scholar who valued books and literature and championed diversity, scientific inquiry, and education as a life-long process.
In addition to the renaming of the library, the dedication program included the opening of the Stephen B. Thacker Legacy Exhibit and the unveiling of a memorial bust plaque. The program included remarks from several people who shared fond memories of their times with Thacker.
Steve Thacker’s extraordinary legacy of leadership in his 37 years of service at CDC began when he was an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer (disease detective) assigned to the Washington, DC Department of Health in 1976. On his first day, he was sent to Harrisburg, PA to help investigate what turned out to be Legionnaires’ disease. From that historic moment until his death on February 15, 2013, Thacker embodied the best of CDC’s commitment to science and to public health service.
Thacker authored or co-authored 241 books and articles that covered far-ranging topics from infectious disease surveillance to sport injuries to environmental hazards. He received the Surgeon General’s Medallion for exceptional contributions to the USPHS Commissioned Corps, CDC, and the science and practice of public health. Last year CDC established the Stephen B. Thacker Science for Social Justice Award, as well as the Stephen B. Thacker Excellence in Mentoring Award.
A Champion of CDC, EIS, and the Library In his welcoming remarks, CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, mentioned that there were many occasions when he had traveled with Thacker, who always had a book in hand. “He told me he would alternate reading fiction with non-fiction. And I thought that epitomized Steve in so many ways balancing work and outside life, and different types of activities…A library is really fitting because of his love of books, but also because it’s the CDC library and he loved CDC. He had a profound impact on CDC, and in many ways was the heart and voice and historian of CDC.”
Presenter Michael Iademarco, director, Center for Surveillance, Epidemiology, and Laboratory Services (CSELS), said that his current office (2400 Century Center, Room 6508) was Thacker’s office when he served as director of the Office of Surveillance, Epidemiology and Laboratory Servicers (OSELS), which preceded CSELS. “When people come to my office, they immediately say, ‘Oh, this was Dr. Thacker’s office,’” said Iademarco, who added that he welcomes the comment and encourages people to reflect. “I’ve noticed themes when they speak: I hear the emotion in their voice, the enthusiasm and endearment when they talk about Dr. Thacker. What has struck me was his unwavering commitment to CDC as an agency and our mission—and his willingness to respond to the agency’s request for help.”
Also making remarks was Stephanie Zaza, director, Division of Adolescent and School Health, who shared several stories about Thacker’s support and guidance as a mentor, and his love of books, research and the library. “Steve is well known as a champion of CDC and EIS, but he was also a champion of the library,” she said.
She described a meeting in 2010 when Thacker asked her to join a new organizational unit that he wanted her to run, and how he had lobbied for the CDC library to be included in this new unit. “He talked about how the original Clifton campus library on the fourth floor of Building 1 was his sanctuary—and he extolled the many virtues of the librarians and how they had always found interesting articles and literature that would support his research…Steve could see the value of things that others had not yet realized. He thought that having the library in our portfolio was exciting because he saw how it could continue to serve CDC’s mission, even as we increasingly moved into the electronic age.” Zaza added, “Naming this library after Steve is so appropriate. He treasured the pursuit of knowledge, and his love for the library was constant and tangible.”
Thacker Was a Scientist, Public Health Investigator, Mentor Former CDC Director Jeffrey Koplan, now vice president for global health, Emory University, described Thacker as a habitual user of the library and a voracious reader of scientific literature. “He always had a paper he was working on, no matter what his other administrative and leadership duties were. He firmly believed that being involved in a scientific undertaking of establishing new information and assimilating materials was highly appropriate—and drove him. He needed that intellectual stimulation.”
Koplan said that Thacker deftly combined the roles of scientist/public health investigator and being a mentor. “He was someone you could admire and learn things from in terms of his integrity, beliefs, and intellectual rigor.”
Long before the term ‘evidence-based’ became popular, Thacker was interested in how to use established information and was conducting meta-analysis. “His papers still stand as beacons of clarity and knowledge in the field,” said Koplan. “We honor Steve in the naming of this library today, but we honor the library of CDC by naming it after one of CDC’s most illustrious leaders.”
A Passion for Books, Learning, and Life Speaking on behalf of the Thacker family, oldest daughter Maria Thacker Goethe said that for as long as she could remember, her father was never without a book—whether at the beach, in his home office, at the gym, or before bed—one was always within reach. “He’d bring home these large bound pages of Epi investigations—and they were typed!—and I would ask, ‘Why are you reading that?—it’s ancient.’ And he said how it was important to get refreshed on historical investigations. That was Dad!”
Goethe pointed out that in an age where computer and tablet and e-reader are readily accessible, there’s something to be said about the quiet refuge a library provides. “Places such as this give solitude from the everyday noise, and inspire and encourage the act of reading and research,” she said. “As we walk through this library we are reminded of the commitment of this agency to protect and improve the health of our community. I can only hope that through this exhibit future generations will understand my father’s commitment to the health and well-being of people throughout this world—as well as his passion for life.”
Also making brief comments as a program presenter was Chloe Tonney, senior vice president for external affairs, CDC Foundation. She described Steve Thacker as a “friend, physician, epidemiologist, and mentor who has touched all our lives.” She mentioned that her frequent conversations with Thacker revolved around one of three subjects: EIS; finding a way to honor and preserve the legacy of a public health luminary; or plans for the future growth and reach of the CDC library. “How fitting that the CDC library is now named for one of the most noted epidemiologists of our time—one so deeply committed to experiential learning, teaching and discovery.”
Koplan and Thacker’s widow, Luz Fortes Thacker, together removed the covering over the Thacker relief plaque—revealing a bronze image of a smiling Steve Thacker. Koplan peered closely and then quipped, “Thank God they didn’t put a tie on him!” which elicited laughter among the audience. Thacker was well-known for his penchant for polo shirts.
A Career Rooted in Science, Social Justice—and Love After the program, attendees were invited to view the Stephen B. Thacker Legacy Exhibit, a permanent exhibit that showcases many items from Thacker’s life at CDC, as well as personal mementos.
The exhibit features the William C. Watson Jr. Medal of Excellence for Sustained Leadership and Lasting Contributions to Scientific Excellence, which Thacker received in 1996; and the Charles C. Shepard Science Award for Lifetime Scientific Achievement, awarded to Thacker in 2009.
For several years Thacker was coach of the girls’ basketball team at St. Pius Catholic High School, and one display includes his coach cap and whistle along with a basketball signed by some of his players.
The exhibit also includes Steve Thacker’s briefcase; an old passport; and photos of Thacker as a schoolboy during the mid-1950s, as a young epidemiologist interviewing an American Legion member in 1976, and as chief resident of the Duke-Watts Family Medicine Program in Chapel Hill, NC (1975-76), where he championed community health education and helped train lay advisors.
Music for the dedication ceremony was provided by the Jubilate Trio: Jenny Parker, cello; Miranda Bodfish, flute (both from CDC’s CGH); and Carol Haisten, piano. Following the program, the CDC Foundation hosted a reception for the family and other attendees.
Linda Carnes (CSELS), who served as special project lead for the dedication program and legacy exhibit, said that planning the event was particularly rewarding. “I worked under Dr. Thacker’s leadership in many different positions over my years here at CDC, and so it has been a special pleasure to work with our talented team to honor Dr. Thacker in this way. Re-naming the library is a fitting legacy to both his love for CDC and deep commitment to our mission and work. He would be very pleased.”