At the heights of professional achievement

Leonard Mermel loves the outdoors as much as he digs science. Here he is with his son Elliot after an “exciting heli-skiing adventure” at Whistler, British Columbia. 

Leonard Mermel, D.O.’84, Sc.M., A.M. (Hon.), FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, is one of those DMU graduates with multiple credentials, several titles and seemingly countless awards and achievements. In addition to his hospital and academic appointments, he is a member of several professional organizations and has served on numerous state, national and international committees on topics ranging from infection prevention and control to biodefense and protective equipment for health care workers. 

Mermel’s 68-page CV lists 11 book chapters he’s authored, 94 original publications he’s had in peer-reviewed journals and 130 abstracts. His prolific works put him on Clarivate Analytics’ 2018 “Highly Cited Researchers” list – scientists whose papers rank in the top 1 percent of citations in their field. 

Professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and medical director of the department of epidemiology and infection control at Rhode Island Hospital, Mermel even had a poem, “My Mentor,” published in the Wisconsin Medical Journal last year. He also played drums in a jazz band that performed a recent Saturday evening in Brown’s main concert hall. (You can enjoy his performance with Bryan Le, Dr. Jordan Thompson and Jared Remson on Miles Davis’ “So What” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” here.)

All these and many more accomplishments raise one’s eyebrows when he says, “I didn’t really apply myself in school – my undergraduate grades weren’t that great.” But clearly the work ethic modeled by his father, Bennet Mermel, won out. 

“He was a Holocaust survivor who came to this country with nothing,” says his son. “He imbued upon me how fortunate we are to be Americans and have all the opportunities we have. I’ve always wanted to give back because I grew up with the ethos that I’m lucky.” 

Lucky, he says, to have had “lots of role models and mentors who’ve shown me the path” – from a grade-school science teacher to that mentor who inspired his poem, Dennis Maki, M.D., the Ovid O. Meyer professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, where Mermel completed a fellowship in infectious disease. Maki’s relentless pursuit of editorial perfection influenced his pupil: 

When you ask Mermel what he considers highlights of his career, his voice matches the wonder and enthusiasm of Ira Flatow of public radio’s “Science Friday” fame. One was research he published in the 1990s on infection risks caused by a type of catheter widely used in hospitals at the time. He found patients – coincidentally, all women – who’d had bad reactions after the catheter was inserted. 

“The company that made the device told me, ‘They’re all just hysterical – keep using it,’” he recalls. He submitted a Freedom of Information Act to the Food and Drug Administration, discovered other catheterized patients who experienced problems and then published his results. The company tried to discredit his research. 

“I stood by it,” Mermel says. “Standing up for patients and not backing down is important. Eventually that catheter came off the market worldwide.” 

Another highlight was an invitation to give a lecture at NASA’s Johnson Space Center about infection control challenges in space travel. “People were just starting to talk about settlement of Mars, but there was very little research about infection control in long-term space travel,” he says. “Bacteria become more dangerous in space, while humans become somewhat immuno-suppressed.” 

On his next visit to the space center, Mermel was accompanied by his daughter, Elizabeth Blaeser, an infection preventionist. “We got a private tour of Johnson, and she got to meet all the microbiologists there,” he says. “Sharing that whole experience with my daughter was so rewarding.” 

Mermel feels that way about research, too. Reducing the risk of infection among hospital patients has been a major focus. 

“There’s great satisfaction in taking care of patients, but what’s nice about research is being able to have an impact on many patients,” he says. “I want to shine the light on the ways we can reduce the likelihood of people getting sicker in the hospital.”