We are saddened by the death of Frank von Sonnenburg, MD, MPH, PhD, on August 21, 2020, after a relatively brief struggle with a brain cancer. Frank's passing marks the loss of a loyal and longstanding ISTM leader and friend.
Frank was a Professor in Infectious Diseases and Tropical Medicine at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. He had worked extensively in developing countries on a variety of infectious diseases projects, in public health at the WHO and elsewhere, and on vaccine clinical trials. Among many activities at ISTM, Frank served as CISTM7 Chair in Innsbruck, Austria in 2001, Secretary-Treasurer from 1997-2005, President from 2007-2009, and GeoSentinel Munich Site Director since 1995.
Frank led our Society in major achievements. He contributed greatly to organizing CISTMs in Europe that were not only scientific successes, but also convivial get-togethers and with his exceptional flair for numbers they provided a foundation for the financial success of the Society. He had a vision of a global Society in which peers from industrialized countries around the world would bring together colleagues from lower resource settings to develop travel medicine and travel health in their home countries.
Hans Nothdurft, medical school classmate and life-long good friend of Frank, remarked that Frank mellowed from his early-career radical viewpoints about health care, but continued to dedicate the focus of his work to vaccination as a crucial component of good health for all. Frank was a sincere and inspiring colleague.
Frank was also down-to-earth and keenly supported junior colleagues. As a fledgling travel medicine provider, Lin Chen had written to Frank to learn about Borrelia burgdorferi sensu lato in Europe. Although they had never met, Frank answered promptly and expertly with pertinent and valuable knowledge. In GeoSentinel, he constantly pushed for distributing reimbursements to his whole team and for different members on his team to co-author papers. Frank's assertive but never arrogant nature, his willingness to respond to curiosity, and his support for junior colleagues have led to decades of fond memories for all who knew him.
Frank was a founding site director of GeoSentinel, making Munich one of the first sites outside North America, and from the start one of the largest and most diverse contributors to the network. Frank worked tirelessly from the beginning to update data collection, moving from using fax machines to web-based data entry. Frank later made a tremendous personal effort to more effectively integrate Munich's huge and complex clinical operation with the Network. As a rare clinician with strong programming skills, he pioneered the use of electronic medical record templates to auto-populate the GeoSentinel database from the invaluable trove of clinical information gathered at his site - a task the rest of us still only dream about accomplishing one day. As co-members of the Data Quality Working Group since its inception, Michael Libman remembers with fondness innumerable days, meetings, meals, and wine-infused evenings dissecting, arguing, and laughing (sometimes quite hysterically) over data conundrums which always spilled over into stories and contemplation of work and life in general. Frank's extensive clinical knowledge was essential in designing and improving the quality of our entire database. Michael notes that his devotion to GeoSentinel meant that his proposals and opinions were profuse, but always constructive and relevant, delivered with conviction and enthusiasm, and although we all debated a great deal, the result was always for the benefit of our projects.
All of us who spent time with Frank quickly realized that he had that rare balance between being opinionated, devoted, compassionate, and fun - a balance which pushed us all forward, while always enjoying the work and our time together. His joie-de-vivre was manifested by the extraordinary opening parties he organized at Innsbruck in 2001 and Budapest in 2009, which live on in ISTM lore. His compassion is recalled by David Freedman whose son was hospitalized in Munich a few years ago during a summer internship; Frank's first words when David phoned him on a Sunday were, "don't worry, I'm going to the hospital right now to check on things". Frank exemplified what being part of the ISTM family means.
On behalf of ISTM leaders, we send our deepest sympathies to Frank's wife Angelika and their sons. We remember warmly a passionate man, and with his heart always in the right place despite a few rough edges which were the evidence of his commitment. A man who greatly influenced travel medicine, GeoSentinel and global health. We will miss his expansive persona, his invaluable ideas, his drive and vision for ISTM and GeoSentinel, and the ever-present twinkle in his eyes!
In memory of Frank, you may wish to consider a donation to the ISTM Foundation.
Lin Chen, ISTM President, with contributions from:
Phyllis Kozarsky, ISTM Co-Founder
Hans Nothdurft, Past ISTM Website Editor and CISTM Organizer
Davidson Hamer and Michael Libman, GeoSentinel Co-Principal Investigators
David Freedman, Past ISTM Secretary-Treasurer 2005-2013, and GeoSentinel
Annelies Wilder-Smith, Past ISTM President, JTM Editor-in-Chief
Robert Steffen, ISTM Co-Founder and ISTM Foundation President