What Does Fine Art Have to Do with an Emerging Infectious Disease?

Posted by Monica Hoel
Byron Breedlove, E&H ’75, can explain.

Byron Breedlove is the managing editor of a publication called Emerging Infectious Diseases He’s been doing this job since 2014, six years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but this has to be a fascinating moment to be in this particular job. “It’s pretty unimaginable. The journal is 25 years old this year, and this is exactly the situation the publication was designed for.”

This journal is published (now exclusively online) by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and features articles from a range of physicians and researchers about issues related to the latest news surrounding emerging infectious diseases of interest.

It’s an understatement to say that their work has gotten a lot of attention this spring.

“Until recently, our most read article was an historical review about the 1918 Flu – it had about 20,000 views. We just recently noticed that an old article about how to make a homemade mask from a t-shirt had gotten half a million reads. An article on COVID-19’s association with restaurant seating and ventilation has now had close to 850,000 views and has been cited in more than 300 media stories. Our article submission numbers are 4 times higher than usual (we expect 8-9,000 articles to be submitted this year). And subscriptions by way of email notifications are way up.” The journal is peer reviewed, and it is editorially independent from the CDC.

There is a unique element to this publication that has distinguished it from other medical journals: art.

Byron says that in the late ’90s someone told the previous managing editor that the publication’s cover design lacked pizazz. “The comment, as it was told to me, was, ‘No one is going to pay attention to this.’ So they starting looking at ways to make it stand out.” 

But the art they use isn’t sketches of viruses or artsy photos of white-coated researchers: often the covers feature fine art and beautiful artistic creations that often seem on the surface to have nothing to do with an emerging infectious disease. And Byron has also pushed the boundaries a bit to feature more unusual artwork that connects more with the journal’s themes. The editor in chief of EID, D. Peter Drotman, explained it this way in an interview with Columbia Journal Review: “The goal is not to be playful or cute or to attract attention. It’s to humanize the content and to say we’re dealing with an issue that affects humanity in many ways. One way that humanity has expressed itself is through art and how it deals with the human condition and suffering.”

Byron says the publication was always meant to be accessible to anyone and everyone.  There is no fee to publish articles and the publication is available free to the public. “It’s all open access.” In a way, the art serves to make the magazine even more comfortable and approachable to the public.

So, Byron has this really unusual job that combines English and art and science: but it all makes sense for a guy who took his childhood love of science to Emory & Henry, started as a physics major – and then changed all his plans after meeting English professor Lamarr Smith. “Suddenly I was up all night studying for a test on Dante’s Inferno and pretty soon I was taking classes with Turner Clinard and Bob Denham, and I wasn’t a physics major any more. This is probably not where I imagined myself  back then, but I would say to other liberal arts students to use their imaginations about careers and be willing to take a chance.”

Working so close to so much information about our current infectious disease, Byron says he is encouraged by the amount of data he is seeing collected about COVID-19. “We understand more about it the virus all the time, but I worry when people don’t take the science seriously.”

It’s important to note that the t-shirt he is wearing in his profile picture says: “This English major believes in science.”

  • Byron Breedlove, E&H Class of 1975.
“This is exactly the situation the publication was designed for.”
Byron Breedlove
E&H Class of 1975

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