Fred Sparling Turns Bad Luck into Prestigious Career

Fred Sparling, MD

Fred Sparling, MD

Fred Sparling, MD, believes in making the best out of a bad situation. It is a philosophy that guided his professional path leading him to his own research lab, chairing two departments at UNC and recently accepting the Association of American Physicians’ (AAP) highest honor.

“From bad luck you can find good luck,” says Sparling, who delivered the Kober Lecture on April 25. Named after the late physician George M. Kober, the lecture is presented every three years. Looking at the glass half full was the theme of Sparling’s address as he knew nearly half of the audience was junior investigators.

“I shared with them my mistakes and how I learned from them,” Sparling says. “For example, I was so busy completing my internship at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and courting the woman who would become my wife, that I missed the deadline to apply for training at the National Institutes of Health.  When a position was offered at the Venereal Diseases Research Laboratories at the CDC, located outside Atlanta in rural Georgia, I accepted immediately. Otherwise I would have been drafted.”

At first, Sparling was miserable. He spent his days culturing young women with gonorrhea, but had long periods of down time in between patients. Then he decided to use the time to his advantage and read everything he could find. His readings led him to focus on creating a genetic system to study Neisseria gonorrheae, the cause of gonorrhea. The ideas worked.

“I learned that I loved laboratory research, and reached out to Dr. Morton Swartz at Mass General, who suggested that I take further training in basic science,” Sparling says. “I began working with Dr. Bernie Davis at Harvard Medical School, working on genetics of antibiotic resistance and ribosome structure in E. coli, and published several papers, including a single author paper in the journal Science. This was all from seeing the glass as half full and not giving up even when I thought I had stumbled into a bad situation in Georgia.”

In 1969 Sparling was finishing a final year of clinical training as a fellow in infectious diseases at the MGH, and started looking for a real job. He accepted a faculty position at another university, but the job offer fell through. It was Thanksgiving time and he had three children to help his wife support. Joseph Pagano, MD, a well-respected virologist and chief of infectious diseases at UNC was looking to hire physician-scientists. He reached out to Sparling and made him an offer Sparling thinks would be unheard of today. It was another example of a time when bad luck turned good.

“At the time, UNC offered joint appointments in clinical and basic science. I was offered an appointment in medicine, and a joint appointment in microbiology, even though I had not yet met the chair of microbiology and had not given a seminar to the department of microbiology,” Sparling says. “Plus, I was given lab space where I was surrounded by great basic scientists from whom I learned a lot. I truly believe that if that first job offer had not been withdrawn, I wouldn’t have been given the opportunities to grow as a clinician and a researcher in the ways I did at UNC.”

Sparling’s career soared at UNC. His lab discovered that a single gene can cause multiple antibiotic resistance in the gonococcus, and then switched from studying ribosomes in E coli to a variety of topics affecting gonococci. He became the chief of the division of infectious diseases, and then the first chairman of UNC’s Division of Microbiology to not have a PhD. When a two-year search for a Chairman of the Department of Medicine failed to produce a candidate, Sparling reconsidered his decision to not be a candidate out of fear the lack of central leadership was beginning to take a toll on faculty. It meant giving up his job chairing microbiology and a reduction in the amount of time he could spend in his lab, but running the department of medicine also meant working with residents and recruiting faculty.

“I saw it as a chance to work with new people,” Sparling says. “I made lifelong friends. I even walked one of our interns down the aisle, when her family was not able to attend. It was a rewarding interpersonal time for me.”

Stan Lemon, MD, a UNC Professor of Medicine and hepatitis C virus researcher says Sparling continues to inspire him.

“Fred is a mentor, a close friend and a constant role model. I am always looking up to him. No one has been more successful in all three spheres of academic medicine – teaching, research and administration,” says Lemon. “But his biggest contribution has been in mentoring, and this was so evident in his Kober Lecture. It was pitched perfectly to a rising generation of physician-scientists, sharing facets of his incredible career with a unique blend of humor, humility and wise words.”

Forty-six years later and Sparling is a retired professor, but still sees patients in UNC’s ID Clinic.

“UNC is an unusual place because this career couldn’t have unfolded anywhere else,” Sparling says. “People value each other across turf boundaries and collaborate scientifically. I was able to have a career in microbiology and medicine. I grew without constraints and that’s what I hoped my lecture conveyed to a class of young physician-scientists.”

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