Eradication through the Eyes of a Christian Microbiologist

An Interview with retired microbiologist Jeffrey Havenner 

By Brian Lowther

Jeffrey Havenner. Photo by A. Valloza

Jeffrey Havenner. Photo by A. Valloza

Jeff Havenner has Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in microbiology from the University of Maryland, College Park. He worked at the Frederick Cancer Research Center at Fort Detrick, Maryland in oncogenic virology. Following that he was directly commissioned in the US Army and worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Department of Rickettsial Diseases. Recently he contacted us through our website. Since then we've had a number of discussions. Below are some of the highlights. 

Brian Lowther: Tell me a little about your background.

Jeffrey Havenner: I became a Christian when I was in undergraduate college through the ministry of Campus Crusade. While almost everyone I knew eventually went on staff with them, I went to graduate school and got a masters in microbiology. I have also worked a lot in adult christian education at our church so I've spent quite a few years teaching out of the Bible.  

Brian Lowther: Given that all your friends went into campus ministry, what motivated you to pursue microbiology?

Jeffrey Havenner: I actually thought seriously about joining Campus Crusade and took steps to explore taking that route. It became evident that was not the path God wanted me to take. The rest is history as they say. I was very much attracted to the life of Louis Pasteur growing up and saw microbiology potentially as a way to serve mankind by addressing problems of disease. I actually miss working in the field. My wife's brother-in-law is active in aspects of environmental microbiology. He and I have discussions when we get together. This has helped keep me involved in some of what is going on.

Brian Lowther: How did you become acquainted with the Roberta Winter Institute?

Jeffrey Havenner: I just completed the Perspectives Course. That's how I ended up coming across the RWI site. 

Brian Lowther: What caught your interest?

Jeffrey Havenner: Dr. Winter raised the question of whether pathogenic microbes such as viruses, bacteria and protozoa constitute a malevolent form of intelligent design. The question becomes are they "of the Devil?" 

One consideration could be that the Devil, as an outcome of the curse upon mankind, could have been allowed by God to tamper with microorganisms but I don't think that happened. I think that this gives the Devil too much credit. 

Brian Lowther: What's your take?

Jeffrey Havenner: In part the answer to the question is that the Devil corrupts but does not create. One consideration could be that the Devil, as an outcome of the curse upon mankind, could have been allowed by God to tamper with microorganisms but I don't think that happened. I think that this gives the Devil too much credit. Instead I think that over all our genetics have deteriorated as a result of the curse and our susceptibilities to infection have increased evidenced in part from the declining longevities over the generations in Genesis. More likely microorganisms have been able to adapt positively to those changes at our expense.

Brian Lowther: One of my colleagues––a public health consultant in South Korea––thinks almost identically to you in regards to not giving the devil too much credit.  Our group is very much a mix of different views compromising around an agreed goal of fighting disease for the glory of God, and we all agree that the devil corrupts but does not create.

Jeffrey Havenner: There are two sides to disease.

  1. The invasiveness of the pathogen.
  2. The susceptibility of the host.
What I am suggesting therefore is that the microbes themselves were opportunistic and man became susceptible via the curse that removed nature's cooperation with man.

It is quite possible that since the original disobedience of man in the garden we have become more susceptible to the microbes of God's creation and that is what has become the greater factor in the disease process. What I am suggesting therefore is that the microbes themselves were opportunistic and man became susceptible via the curse that removed nature's cooperation with man.

The Book of the Revelation seems to show us the relationship of increased susceptibility to disease when at the breaking of the fourth seal.   "... I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth" (Rev. 6:8 ESV). War and famine weaken populations leaving the more susceptible to plagues and the vectors that carry them. This was quite evident in the influenza pandemic following World War I.

Brian Lowther: I have been debating in my own mind lately the point you suggest about original sin causing our susceptibility to the microbes of God's creation, i.e., perhaps the microbes that make us sick were always there, but weren't harmful to human beings until Adam sinned.

Jeffrey Havenner: Opportunism seems to be much more of what the Devil is about. Therefore resisting diseases seems more to be about decreasing human susceptibility than to look for eradication of the disease-causing organisms. Only smallpox has been eradicated of the major epidemic diseases.

Electron microscope image of smallpox virus (Poxvirus). Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr.

Electron microscope image of smallpox virus (Poxvirus). Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr.

Smallpox: dead or alive? 

Brian Lowther: It seems to me that the eradication of smallpox occurred through the smallpox vaccine, not by destroying the smallpox virus. Is that correct? So, smallpox was eradicated by decreasing human susceptibility, as you suggest. However, I do know that vials of the smallpox virus still exist in the U.S. and Russia. Does that mean that the disease causing organisms were destroyed (other than the two stocks in the U.S. and Russia)?

Jeffrey Havenner: You are right in saying that smallpox was eradicated by vaccination. There appears to be an open question of whether Variola is actually gone from the wild or whether it is merely dormant in attenuated forms and still lurking in the human population. In doing further reading it appears that smallpox vaccine is still being produced and administered. The US Military apparently is still vaccinating its personnel. The feeling seems to be that the virus is out there somewhere.

Actually I have to correct my response to you. As I have continued to read up on Small Pox I find that giving the vaccine has been discontinued from general administration and is no longer required for public health workers because the risk is now considered to outweigh the potential benefit. The source for this is this review from the Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. I still think the Army may still be giving the vaccine from what appears on their sites.

Four reasons why the body of Christ should play a role in disease eradication

Brian Lowther: Other than prayer and funding, in what way do you think the body of Christ could play a role in eradication? Can you envision an organization like One World Health being established by a group of believers with eradication of a specific disease as their goal? Or is this an impossible dream?

Jeffrey Havenner: As far as research on diseases goes, much of that effort is associated with academia which is NOT welcoming to overt Christian participation. Most efforts to do research on disease seem to be based on humanitarian desires to do good and give back. I do believe that a lot of our drive to embrace causes of this kind arises from what might be called memories from Eden that seem to be hard wired into our brains. These appear to go back to God's design of and subsequent command to Adam and Eve to have dominion and to replenish the earth.

A Christian organization dedicated to fighting disease in God's name is definitely not impossible.

Science and theology have been at some odds since the Age of Reason dawned in the 18th Century. Scientists and science students who are motivated by faith in God have faced and continue to face a deep bias against them in academia in favor of humanism. A single mention of creation or "intelligent design" even casually is enough to get one blackballed from many scientific institutes. Thus Christians in the halls of academia tend to be as private about their faith as a convert to Christianity would have to be in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.

A Christian organization dedicated to fighting disease in God's name is definitely not impossible. Initially it might resemble the Institute for Creation Research which does actual science but gets no respect or acknowledgement from the secular scientific community.

  1. Unlike Creation Research which might seem esoteric to the average person, an overtly Christian organization in the fight against diseases that threaten humanity has the potential to have a direct impact on human well being. 
  2. Research that actually contributes to finding cures for dread diseases like cancer or AIDS/HIV will draw attention and funding if it can document promising results. 
  3. In fact such an organization might approach the issues in a more honest way, rather than from a dogmatic fashion that presumes the answers it wants. 
  4. I tend to believe that God might well bless an effort to glorify Him through such research as He blessed Joseph in a national effort to avert famine in Egypt.

One thing disease eradication workers desperately need

Brian Lowther: One of the goals we've considered is trying to fill a need within the public health industry by helping workers integrate their work with their faith, i.e., demonstrate to them how their work glorifies God and brings his will on earth as it is in heaven. Does this seem like a legitimate goal to you? Is this needed? In other words, is an organization needed that would network and encourage believers at work in public health/disease eradication? Or is there already someone doing this?

Jeffrey Havenner: That does seem like a worthy goal. Scientists are under intense pressure to compartmentalize faith in God if they have it and keep it out of scientific practice on pain of exile from the profession if they do not. When I was in graduate school, I was blessed to have a fellow graduate student in the next lab who was also a Christian. We spent quite a bit of time discussing theology as well as science and attended an off campus Bible study together. He was eventually the best man at my wedding. We still keep in touch. I don't know if public health people feel the same degree of pressure.  I have another friend in the US Public Health Service that I will be getting together with in a few weeks. I will ask his impression of pressure to compartmentalize faith in that discipline. I will ask him if he is aware of a Christian fellowship of Public Health workers. I believe this gets to your last question as well. I asked my friend who works at NIH about a Christian association of public health workers and he said he was not aware of one.

Scientists are under intense pressure to compartmentalize faith in God if they have it and keep it out of scientific practice on pain of exile from the profession if they do not.

The integration of our faith in God with our work so that God is honored by what we do and by how we interact with people we work with is of great importance. It is easy for people to feel defeated in their walk with God because they feel compromised in the way they are forced to separate work from faith to avoid trouble especially in government settings. Freedom of Religion in America has morphed into the right of freedom from religion.

Posted on July 26, 2012 and filed under Blog, Second 30.