Professor Stephen Lawn, physician researcher, author, and teacher, March 13,1966 – Sept. 23, 2016
It was an expedition across the Sahara desert in the late 1980s, Stephen Lawn said later, that changed the course of his life, to one driven by faith and ultimately focused on fighting the impacts of HIV and tuberculosis.
The career that followed took him and his wife, a pediatrician, to Ghana, Atlanta, Capetown, and eventually back to England where he served on the Infectious Diseases faculty at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Dr. Lawn died Sept. 23, leaving friends and colleagues across the world with memories of a man they call both brilliant and modest, with an unyielding drive to stop deaths from treatable illnesses among the poorest people in the world, a daunting capacity for hard work, and an infectious laugh.
Dr. Linda-Gail Bekker, who worked with him over the years from 2005 to 2012 that he was based in South Africa at Cape Town University’s Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, remembers the sound of his laughter from his office at the end of the hall, and remembers reading emails in the morning, sent by him in the middle of the night when he was hard at work on an idea.
“He had an enormous curiosity for ways to find solutions,” she said “underpinned by humor, orchestrated by faith.”
Dr. Lawn was in South Africa in the fall of 2014, preparing to lead a clinical trial that would test a way to improve screening for tuberculosis and reduce deaths among people living with HIV, when he felt the first symptoms of the aggressive brain cancer that would take his life.
The STAMP trial (Screening for Tuberculosis to Reduce AIDS-related Mortality in Hospitalized Patients in Africa) began in early 2015 and continues in Malawi and South Africa, aiming to demonstrate if use of a urine-based strategy to screen people with HIV for tuberculosis upon hospital admission can lower death rates compared to current methods.
In the two years following Dr. Lawn’s diagnosis, he spoke to members of his church about facing the end of his life with work unfinished, of his acceptance, and of his belief in a purpose to all events. “I have no idea how God is going to use this,” he said.
In an impromptu talk at the Union Lung Conference in Cape Town, South Africa, he told an audience he wished he had tuberculosis instead. “Let’s not forget,” he said, “[tuberculosis] is a treatable disease.”
He spent Christmas in Tanzania with his family.
He and his wife, with colleagues in London and Cape Town set up a memorial fund to support an annual lecture by a tuberculosis researcher and support researchers in quest of answers to TB and HIV in Africa. In the spring he gave the inaugural lecture at LSHTM’s TB Centre. Over the summer he traveled to Amsterdam to see a student present a dissertation.
“He was incredibly brave,” Dr. Bekker said. “He often used to say ‘everything’s fine except for the problem in my head.”
He wished, she added, that he could have returned to Africa one more time. In a comment following LSHTM Director Peter Piot’s tribute to Dr. Lawn, a team member on the STAMP trial wrote, “He has left us physically, but we are with him in spirit as we continue moving forward to the successful end of his research project, and the success will be dedicated to him.”