The Impatient Dr. Lange: One Man's Fight to End the Global HIV Epidemic

Yasmin, Seema

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Zander, Devon
  • Date of entry: Oct-06-2021


The Impatient Dr. Lange is a biography of Joseph “Joep” Lange, an HIV/AIDS researcher best known for his work in HIV transmission prevention and treatment, written by Seema Yasmin.  Yasmin is a journalist, doctor, and epidemiologist whose life path was forever altered by a run-in with Dr. Lange at age 17, when he said to her, “If you want to help people, first you need to learn how to take care of them.  Go to medical school.” (p. xiii).  The book’s narrative parallels that of the life of her inspiration, Lange; in addition, Yasmin details the evolution of HIV, how it came to spread around the globe, and a history of antiretrovirals.  

Coming of age professionally in the early 1980s, Joep Lange had a career defined by HIV and the advances to manage it.  Early on, he trained as a physician before pursuing a PhD.  During his PhD, he was a prolific researcher, producing “eleven papers on AIDS in his first years,” including an early case study on the appearance of acute HIV and the way in which the body’s antibody response changes in response to continued infection.  His commitment to rigorous scientific inquiry continued as a professional research scientist.  Most noted for his early trials about the use of antiretrovirals and their role in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, he was intimately involved with much of the science used to treat and prevent HIV today.  Outside of research, he was an ardent advocate of health equity, starting the PharmAccess Initiative, a group initially developed to expand access to antiretrovirals in developing countries.  

Ultimately, the book is about how a life of great potential, drive, and success was tragically cut short.  Shadowing the narrative of the book is the specter of Lange’s unfortunate end on Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a plane that was mistakenly shot down over the Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, while he was en route to the twentieth International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.  The penultimate chapter reflects on all that was unfinished - projects on three continents, advising the next generation of PhDs, a novel - and ends with a prescient quote from Lange, in regard to mandatory retirement in the Netherlands at the age of 65:  that even if he had 10-15 more years, he declares “that is still not enough time” (p. 174).


Like many public health crusaders, Lange understood the connection between societal and historical factors and the spread and development of disease, specifically HIV and AIDS.  He also knew that those same factors could be leveraged to stop the transmission and sequelae of HIV.  This idea was embodied in one of his most notable quotes: “If we can get cold Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, surely we can do the same with drugs” (p. 2).  Joep’s relentless pursuit of his goal is conveyed chapter by chapter, through a continual series of challenges that he faces - how to balance activism, progress, and scientific rigor; where his work would be most meaningful; who to make partnerships with to expand access to care and treatment; and more.

Yet, with so much to cover, there are only glimpses here and there of who he was outside of his accomplishments and professional relationships. I suspect this may be partly due to the brevity of the book, at only 176 pages of narrative.  Though short, the thoroughness with which Yasmin approaches the book is undiminished. Her research involved extensive interviews, travel to three continents, and by her own admission, “countless hours spent sifting through records” (p. xvi).  Her closeness to Lange and the public health community enables her to tear down the formality that can often pervade medical research, something seen in the way she refers to major researchers by their first names - Lange is  “Joep” throughout the book.  It is also refreshing to hear her explain complex molecular biology topics accessibly, using visualizable analogies (e.g. representing HIV envelope projection proteins as leaves on a stalk).  Breaking down this formality allows Yasmin to tell not just the story of Lange and the lives he intersected with, but of HIV itself, in an approachable way.


Johns Hopkins University Press

Place Published

Baltimore, Maryland

Page Count