What followed were several more years of struggle in St. Louis, followed by a year of residency at Washington University's Barnes Hospital. Would the brand-new M.D. go on to become a family practitioner, or maybe a specialist in endocrinology, as he'd frequently imagined? No. Somewhere in the middle of his residency training, Martin went home to Cameroon to visit his family and made a surprising discovery.
"As soon as I got back home, people started asking me questions about malaria, which is by far the biggest killer there. And I realized that I knew almost nothing about it.
"I think we'd had no more than two or three hours of instruction on malaria during med school. But we spent more than two weeks on subjects like diabetes! So I said to myself, 'Here's the most fatal disease in my entire country, and I know nothing about it.' And right then I began to think about becoming a specialist in malaria."
NO FUNDS FOR MALARIA RESEARCH
Upon returning to the United States, Martin spent three years working as a malaria researcher at the National Institutes of Health, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. All too soon, however, he was forced to confront an obvious fact: research dollars for malaria were practically nonexistent in the U.S., mainly because the illness had nearly been eradicated here during the first decades of the 20th century.
After several frustrating years in which he labored to find adequate funding, Martin discovered the perfect place in which to continue his challenging research: the U.S. Army. The U.S. government is the world's single largest supporter of malaria research.
"If you had told me when I was at Reed or in medical school that one day I would become a U.S. Army officer . . . ." He shakes his head, then booms with laughter: "Unbelievable. But you know, it all worked out beautifully, because the army has turned out to be the one place in this country with a very active interest in malaria."
"The army must be prepared to fight all over the world--and that includes the tropics, where malaria is most prevalent. So, telling a general about the need to come up with a malaria vaccine is preaching to the choir. You see?
"If that general was in the Vietnam War, he knows all about malaria. Few people realize that this disease actually caused more U.S. casualties than the fighting."
SEARCHING FOR THE MOLECULAR TRIGGER
Since signing on with the Walter Reed Institute in 1985, Martin has spent the past 13 years as a kind of "molecular detective," a stalker of the inconceivably tiny fragments of protein that "tell" the parasitic protozoa when to invade red blood cells. Once inside, the bug devours hemoglobin at astonishing rates--while sending its victims into paroxysms of fever and chills that all too often end in death.
During the past decade, the peripatetic Martin has traveled around the globe many times in order to study the devastating bug up close. He spent five years working on a particularly virulent strain of the disease in Kenya and only recently returned from a week-long foray to Brazil, which has reported an alarming surge in malaria rates during the past few years.
Once thought to have been eradicated in the United States, malaria is making a comeback, with more than 1,000 "local cases" now being reported annually. Even more alarming, for both U.S. and world health officials, is the fact that the disease's resistance to chloroquine--the most potent drug-weapon--is rapidly increasing.