He studied biology at Harvard — “back when you could smoke in the laboratories,” he says, chuckling — then earned his medical degree at the University of Pittsburgh and completed his medical training in Brooklyn at the State University of New York. His fascination with infectious diseases took hold during a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California at San Diego, where he worked to improve therapy for kidney infections. In 1979, Friedlander left academia and joined the military at Fort Detrick, a move that allowed him to focus exclusively on bacteria research. He quickly found a challenge in anthrax.
“There wasn’t much research going on back then,” says Friedlander, standing outside his office building at Fort Detrick. He explains that the National Institutes of Health developed a field of bio-defense research at the post after the anthrax attacks, then points toward two tall buildings a stone’s throw away. “Those are both new.”
Inside, Friedlander marches through a maze of hallways to his office, swiping his identification card at half a dozen doorways. His office is small and windowless, nestled at the heart of the compound where linoleum flooring of the labs gives way to carpet. He sits behind his desk, barely visible behind stacks of papers, and adjusts his eyeglasses. Three faded portraits of bearded men, taken during the 19th century, adorn his desk in the spot typically reserved for vacation snapshots.
The first photo shows German biologist Robert Koch, who discovered that anthrax was an infectious disease in the mid-19th century. The second is French chemist Louis Pasteur, who created the first vaccines for anthrax and rabies shortly thereafter. Third is Swiss bacteriologist Alexander Yersin, who discovered the pathogen responsible for the bubonic plague near the turn of the 20th century.
“These are the guys who started the game,” Friedlander says. “We’re just following in their footsteps.”
His colleagues and superiors say Friedlander’s work is as important to the science as the men on his desk. Gerald Parker, a retired colonel who oversaw medical research at Fort Detrick during the anthrax attacks, says Friedlander could wind up in a picture frame on the desk of a pioneering microbiologist.
“I imagine there are already some people who aspire to follow in his footsteps,” Parker says. “From what I know of Art’s reputation in the international scientific community in this area, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.”