Honoring Dr. Stephen B. Thacker’s Legacy by Inspiring a Passion for Public Health in Students

Stephen B. Thacker, MD, MSc, ASG/RADM (Ret.), U.S. Public Health Service, EIS ’76, was extraordinarily dedicated to the fields of epidemiology and public health service, sharing his leadership with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and providing countless contributions for the betterment of others, including helping to identify Legionnaires’ disease. Today, his family works to continue his legacy by providing ongoing support to the public health leaders of tomorrow.

“He was a humble man and showed great compassion,” his daughter Maria Thacker Goethe said. “He just wanted to make this world a healthier place and he hoped others would do the same.”


Honoring a Remarkable Life

In 2013, to honor Dr. Thacker’s life and service to public health, including his 37 years at CDC, the Thacker family established the Stephen B. Thacker Fund. The Fund supports special projects at the Stephen B. Thacker CDC Library, as well as the annual Stephen B. Thacker Excellence in Mentoring Award, which recognizes an individual exhibits an unwavering commitment to the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Program, officers and alumni through demonstrated excellence in applied epidemiology training, mentoring and building public health capacity. In addition, the fund supports the CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp, an interdisciplinary educational program for high school students held each summer at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

The CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp is free, but highly selective. There are an estimated 650 applicants each year, competing for roughly 50 in-person camp openings. The camp is open to high school students during the summer before their junior or senior years. Over the course of five days, campers from around the country are immersed in the diverse field of public health.

CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp participants enjoy learning from CDC professionals during the camp’s global health fair. CDC staff with experience in the field around the world share their experiences with the campers in this interactive session.

The July 2022 CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp cohort. Building community and fostering a sense of belonging is an important aspect of the program, and the camp shirts help achieve this goal.

A camper learns from a staff member from CDC’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity during the camp health equity session. Campers analyzed data and discussed the social determinants of health that can impact a person’s health.

The combination of the Stephen B. Thacker Fund’s financial support with the volunteer expertise of more than 100 CDC employees has created an unparalleled learning experience for students. CDC volunteers share their time, energy and passion for public health by providing memorable lectures; running immersive workshops; describing their training and current work in an informal health fair setting; pretending to be cases or controls in mock outbreak settings; or serving as subject matter experts for the mock press briefing.

Trudi Ellerman, camp founder and education director at the CDC Museum, is proud of the camp’s growth, saying, “Since the camp began in 2005, we have had many campers return to work as camp counselors. There are former campers who now work at CDC, who are medical doctors and EIS officers.”


A Legacy’s Growing Impact

For a decade now, the Stephen B. Thacker Fund has continued to strengthen the CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp, allowing it to expand in scope. The camp recently added an online summer course, created and implemented at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This virtual experience allows an additional 100 students to engage with public health each summer. Another new addition is the Public Health Academy Teen Newsletter, which is created by teens and meant to be shared with their peers. This monthly newsletter has an audience of roughly 1,700 subscribers and features public health topics and a live “Teen Talk” where teens can learn from CDC experts.

Graduates of the CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp consistently report that their experience had a significant impact on their educational and career paths:

“I came into college as a biology major but picked up a public health minor because of the passion for community health I developed at CDC camp,” said one 2015 camper and current University of Georgia student. “I ended up liking the classes like Epidemiology and Biostatistics for my minor so much I ended up switching my major to Public Health. I am considering getting my MPH before attending medical school.”A PhD student at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and 2011 camper said: “This camp was what set me on an initial trajectory to pursue a career in public health in the first place.”

And a 2010 camper, now an evaluation specialist, said that “public health was a completely new concept to me when I attended Disease Detective Camp, which was suggested to me by a counselor due to my interest in health. I was so inspired by my experience at camp that I immediately began looking at colleges with schools of public health, then received a BSPH and MPH in five years, and now work as an epidemiologist. So, yes, I think it's fair to say that camp fueled my interest in public health!”

The Thacker Family (L to R: Patrick, Maria, Luz, Stephen, Gabriella and John)

Mrs. Luz Fortes-Thacker and Dr. Stephen Thacker

Dr. Stephen B. Thacker is honored with the Surgeon General’s Medallion in 2013

Building a Meaningful Future

In remembrance of the tenth anniversary of Dr. Thacker’s death, the Thacker family has raised a $10,000 challenge gift to encourage support for the Stephen B. Thacker Family Fund, beginning on February 15, 2023. With this generous act, the family hopes to support many more CDC Museum Disease Detective Camp cohorts and future leaders in public health.

Maria Thacker Goethe said that giving to the CDC Foundation is perfect for those who are passionate about public health and want to see their money go toward something that is meaningful, sustainable and saves lives. Maria and her mother, Luz Fortes-Thacker, have both made the Stephen B. Thacker Fund a beneficiary of their estate plans.

Maria says, “Dad’s legacy is more than a library or a summer camp. I believe he would prefer the teens who attend the camp be inspired to go out into life and try to change the world for the better.”


For more information about leaving your legacy gift to the CDC Foundation please contact Helene Erenberg at herenberg@cdcfoundation.org, or by phone at 404.443.1139.



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