Dr. Glen F. Baker was set to retire in 2020 when he was asked to help rapidly expand the Arkansas Department of Health’s Covid-19 testing capacity. He accepted the challenge, taking on the task in the face of various time constraints and supply chain issues.
Today, days shy of her 92nd birthday, Baker still works three days a week.
In a ceremony at 9 a.m. on June 7, the day it will celebrate another trip around the sun, the Arkansas Department of Health Public Health Laboratory Building will become the Glen F. Baker Public Health Laboratory.
Baker is flattered but a bit out of his element.
“Normally I don’t look for visibility and that sort of thing. I kind of prefer things to happen calmly and quietly,” he says, “but it’s nice of them to do that.”
Baker didn’t know what he wanted to do when he joined the US Navy at 17, just before the Korean War. He grew up on a farm in Jackson County and he knew he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“The tests they did when I joined the military kind of pointed to a medical career,” Baker said.
He was a doctor, assigned to an epidemic disease control unit.
“We did a lot of testing, for diarrhea outbreaks we did food testing for bacteria, milk testing for bacteria, every food that came on base we tested for infectious agents,” he said. “That experience was enough to excite me, to see that pathology was a different field, one that I would rather be in than general medicine.”
His unit was sent to the United States Marine Corps Training Center at Parris Island, South Carolina, during a meningitis outbreak. He also witnessed the public health sector’s response to an H2N2 influenza epidemic in the 1950s, which would serve as the framework for dealing with the covid pandemic years later.
“When we had the big flu outbreak, they had to develop the flu test and the mechanism to handle the high volume samples,” he says. “When the coronavirus arrived, we just had to activate these types of programs. We had equipment on board, but not enough to handle the increased workload. We had to increase personnel and expand equipment and train a whole series of analysts to manage the increased workload.”
When he was discharged from the Navy, he enrolled in pre-med at the University of Arkansas. He completed this in just three years. He went to what was then the University of Arkansas College of Medicine, graduating in 1959, then began a pathology residency.
Four years later, he began practicing pathology at St. Bernard’s Hospital in Jonesboro.
A decade later, he was recruited by the College of Medicine as a professor of pathology and dermatology.
Over the years, Baker has served as chair of the pathology department, associate dean for clinical affairs and acting dean of medical school, vice chancellor of managed care and laboratory director at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, as well as medical director of the American Red Cross. from Arkansas.
“I retired from college and hadn’t been gone very long when the Department of Health called and they had given up their federal license to do clinical laboratory work,” Baker said. . “They asked me if I would come out of retirement and take on the responsibility of director of the laboratory in the Department of Health and I agreed to do so because the public health laboratory is essential in my mind to fill a health mission; we do all water, milk and food environmental testing and we do all infectious disease testing – it’s a broad-spectrum lab, performing over a million tests a year, and it is essential to the citizens of Arkansas that we have a public health laboratory.
The lab’s license was revoked in 2005 due to improper handling of samples and circumvention of a process that helped ensure the accuracy of lab test results. Baker says he retrained all the lab staff.
“The lab has received all certifications to operate as a full-service lab,” he says.
Baker and his wife, Dorotha, have two children: LeMon Baker, who retired from a career in finance, lives in Greers Ferry; and Connie Melton, director of the Health Department’s Center for Health Protection, lives in Little Rock.
To relieve stress and stay in shape throughout her career, Baker played tennis and ran.
“I ran long distances. I lived in Robinwood and ran in the morning to college and back home at night. It’s eight miles one way,” he says. “On weekends my wife’s parents lived on Horseshoe Lake near West Memphis and that lake is 15 miles in circumference and I ran it.”
Baker looks forward to the ceremony in his honor but maintains his humility.
“I don’t know if there’s anything special,” he says, “just what needs to be done is done. I’ve identified and tried to handle the issue and fix it and move on to the next issue .”
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