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He Was a Leader in Infectious Disease Research Long Before COVID

September 21, 2020
by Martin Snapp
Swartzberg Image source: John Swartzberg // Illustration by Leah Worthington

John Swartzberg is training the next generation of infectious disease specialists.

Regarding the pandemic, here’s more bad news: One of the lowest-paying specialties in medicine is infectious diseases.

“It just shows you what society’s priorities are,” says Dr. John Swartzberg, and he knows what he’s talking about. As chair of the Infectious Diseases Committee at Alta Bates Hospital and clinical professor emeritus at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, he heads the editorial board of the school’s many health and wellness publications, including the popular UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, which he has edited since 2001.

Dr. John Swartzberg was Berkeley’s first infectious disease physician. // Photo courtesy of John Swartzberg

Before that, he spent 30 years in clinical practice, helping patients enjoy healthier lives. He was the first doctor in Berkeley to specialize in infectious diseases.

“Today it sounds preposterous, given what we’re dealing with right now. But I remember having an interview with the dean at UCSF, and he said, ‘All infectious diseases will probably be gone by the year 2000.’”

Swartzberg joined the Cal faculty part-time in 1980 and full-time in 2001, and he still conducts online classes, including one on principles of infectious diseases and a seminar on healthcare-associated infections.

“The hardest part about teaching in this pandemic is teaching med students clinical skills,” he says. “How am I supposed to teach them how to examine patients when they aren’t allowed to get near them? I try to make do by focusing on clinical reasoning, case histories, and oral presentations. But I’m hoping for better days when I can teach them how to do the physical exam.”

During this pandemic, Swartzberg has become the go-to guy for the local broadcast media whenever they need a knowledgeable person who can explain things in plain English instead of medical jargon.

“I have a lot of things to talk about, but I can’t say them clearly in writing. I’m just in awe of that talent. But I do know how to talk to patients, and people out there want to know the same things patients want to know. But it’s always frustrating trying to communicate something complicated in 15 seconds.”

And does he have any advice for all of us for dealing with the pandemic?

“Yes. Wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay home!”

Reach Martin Snapp at

From the Fall 2020 issue of California.

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