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Sunday, Aug 12 2012 09:44 PM

Dr. Hans Einstein, valley fever research pioneer, dies at 89

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Bakersfield physician and researcher Dr. Hans Einstein is one of the world's authorities on valley fever.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Dr. Hans Einstein developed a friendship with valley fever patient Darryl Carter, who was diagnosed with valley fever and has been through a battle with the disease that almost killed him. Einstein, who died at 89, was one of the world's authorities on valley fever. At right is Carter's son, Christian. This photo was taken in 2011.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Years after his family escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, he came to Bakersfield where he practiced internal and pulmonary medicine for decades.

A distant relative of famed physicist Albert Einstein, Dr. Hans Einstein would become best known as a central figure in a coordinated effort to develop a vaccine designed to prevent valley fever, one of the great medical scourges of the American Southwest.

Immigrant success story, healer, family man and visionary, Einstein died Saturday at his home in Bakersfield. He was 89.

Hans Einstein was one of the most important early pioneers in the effort to gain wider knowledge and find effective treatments for the disease, said Dr. John Galgiani, a valley fever researcher and the director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence in Tucson, Ariz.

But much of the early knowledge about valley fever was only accessible through the oral tradition.

"Hans Einstein connected the past with the present for those wanting to understand valley fever," Galgiani said Sunday.

And he has been the glue -- the bridge -- between the scientists and the public when it came to making the fight against the disease more effective.

"For those of us learning about valley fever, conversations with Hans were invaluable to our overall understanding of the disease's nuances," he added. "I have on innumerable occasions called Hans for advice on management options ... even as recently as earlier this year."

Einstein was able to remain active and involved in his work until fairly recently, said one of Einstein's five daughters Paula Einstein, who moved to Bakersfield some time ago to help her father.

She noted that his death came the very same day the first Walk for Valley Fever Awareness was held in Bakersfield.

In the past, Dr. Einstein had lamented the fact that awareness-raising events like Saturday's walk were not held in Kern County, one of the hot spots for the soil-borne spores that cause the disease.

"He felt people weren't paying attention to valley fever in the very place it was happening," Paula Einstein said.

"I feel, in a way, he got the last word."

The German-born physician and valley fever expert first came to Bakersfield in 1951 to work at Kern General Hospital, now Kern Medical Center. Over the course of his career, he treated hundreds of patients for the often harmless, sometimes deadly illness. And he never gave up hope that a viable vaccine would be found.

Born Feb. 23, 1923, to a Jewish family in Berlin, Einstein grew up in Hamburg, where he lived until age 10. When fascist leader Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Einstein's family realized it was time to leave their homeland. The Netherlands became young Einstein's home for the next six years.

"My family got out in time," he told The Californian in an interview more than a year ago.

But even the Netherlands wasn't far enough, Paula Einstein said.

By age 16, the young student was ready for university -- and his timing couldn't have been better.

Just one year ahead of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Einstein travelled to New York, then to Furman University in South Carolina, where he became a student.

While living in Greenville, S.C., Einstein was leafing through the telephone directory one day when he happened across another Einstein.

When he called the number he learned the man on the other end of the line was Albert Einstein's son. Soon Hans was invited to dinner at the Einstein residence, and the two struck up an acquaintance. And when Albert Einstein would come down from Princeton University to visit his son, Hans would often join them for dinner.

It turned out Albert and Hans' grandfather were first cousins.

Having conversations over dinner with the Isaac Newton of the 20th century didn't seem to faze Hans, who thought of it as quite normal.

In August 1942, Hans wedded the former Mary Lake, who was also a student at Furman. By the time he'd completed his undergraduate work 31⁄2 years after he began, World War II had come to America's doorstep.

When the Army offered to send Einstein through an accelerated medical school program in exchange for two years of service as a medical officer, he immediately said yes.

"He went back to Germany with the army of occupation," Paula Einstein said.

After fleeing Germany as a child, Hans had returned as an Army captain to try to help put it right.

"It must have been truely gratifying," Paula said.

But his mother, whom he had not seen since before the war, had been trapped in the Netherlands after the invasion, Paula said. Very little was known about her well-being.

"One day, he had a 24-hour pass," Paula said. "He borrowed a motorcycle."

The young officer was able to locate his mother, Paula said. They spent part of the day catching up and reconnecting -- just enough time for Hans to get back to his duty station.

After his release from the Army, Einstein worked for two years at a veterans hospital before coming to Kern General Hospital.

He was married with children, and the family lived in quarters owned by the hospital.

Einstein went on to direct a tuberculosis sanatorium in Keene before beginning a private practice in Bakersfield, where he practiced internal and pulmonary medicine for 25 years.

In an interview last year, he still remembered his office address, 2441 G St.

In 1978, a part-time teaching position at the University of Southern California Medical School evolved into a full-time director's position at the university-affiliated Barlow Respiratory Hospital.

He held the position for 10 years, said Paula Einstein. Earlier this year, she accompanied her dad to say goodbye to his fellow board members for the last time.

In 1988, Einstein moved back to Bakersfield to become medical director at Memorial Hospital. He retired in 1999 -- but to Einstein, retirement was a relative term.

Throughout his career Einstein had worked to develop better treatments for valley fever. While most who contract it do not become seriously ill, about 5 percent develop a disseminated form of the disease, meaning it spreads from the lungs to the central nervous system, skin, joints, major organs or bones. Some of those cases can be heart-breaking.

In 1956, he had helped found a study group made up of physicians, researchers and academics that met at least once a year as a way to collect and share information about valley fever.

The makeup of that group has changed many times, but the group itself exists to this day, Galgiani said.

Dr. Tom Larwood, a longtime internist and valley fever expert, said Einstein's contribution to valley fever treatment and knowledge was incalculable. But it was as a friend and mentor that Einstein influenced Larwood most.

"I've come to see him as one of my best friends," Larwood said of Einstein. "But I think I was just one of hundreds of other people who felt the same way."

Even as Einstein was gearing down for "retirement" in the mid- to late 1990s, he was gearing up to help organize a big push to develop a valley fever vaccine -- and to find the needed funding. It was a team effort involving numerous individuals that resulted in the formation of the Valley Fever Vaccine Project, a consortium of six academic institutions and four research laboratories, with oversight provided by a committee composed of Kern County-based physicians plus public health and civic leaders.

It was unique.

Because valley fever is a regional disease distinct to the southwestern U.S., parts of Mexico, Central and South America, the profit motive that drives the development of pharmaceuticals is not in play. So private and public funding was a must.

The faltering economy and tighter budgets has recently left the project without sufficient funding, but Einstein said last year he believes eventually the problem will be solved.

Hans and Mary Einstein divorced in the 1960s after 25 years of marriage. He has a stepdaughter from his second marriage, which also ended in divorce. Einstein and his third wife, Carolyn, adopted a daughter, Jessica Einstein, bringing the total number of Einstein girls to five.

Carolyn died in 1999.

"He outlived three wives," Paula said.

Einstein's death is a huge loss to Kern County, Larwood said. And a major loss to the medical community.

"He probably knew more about valley fever," Larwood said, "than anyone in the world."

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