May 3, 2021

Whether it’s behind a lab table, in front of a classroom or speaking at a podium, you will find that few professors have seen and done as much as Professor Emeritus Dr. John Quarles. His work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Navy clinical virology lab and as a founding member of the Texas A&M University College of Medicine led him to explore the realms of interest that lay open to him, thanks to his schooling.

Now, six years after his retirement, Quarles looks to pass on the blessing of education to others with a planned gift, inspiring young people to delve into the intricacies of science by providing scholarships to fund their ventures.

During his time in the Navy, Quarles advanced the military's understanding of viruses, despite never studying them formally before that time.

Mastering the Craft

A dedicated first-generation college student, Quarles breezed through his Florida State University bachelor’s degree in bacteriology, graduating in only three years. A year and a half later, he added a master’s degree to his shelf, also in bacteriology.

Upon receiving his second degree, Quarles was hired by the CDC to work in its Special Projects Unit, studying plague, cholera, brucella and anthrax, among others.

Quarles answered the call to serve his country when he traded his Army draft card for a Naval career. Stationed primarily in Bethesda, Maryland, he was selected to establish a clinical virology lab.

“When I arrived, the commanding officer said, ‘So you’re the new virologist.’ And I answered, ‘Yes, sir.’ But I’d never had a course in virology,” Quarles fondly recalled. Nevertheless, he studied the differences between bacteria and viruses, allowing him to progress the Navy’s knowledge and treatment of viral infections. “I guess you are braver when you’re young than when you're old!” Quarles chuckled, reminiscing on his bold reply.

After leaving the Navy, Quarles decided to attain a Ph.D. in microbiology from Michigan State University, followed by post-doctoral research and fellowships. It was through these studies that he made a connection that altered the course of his life.

The Path to Aggieland

In 1977, the Texas A&M College of Medicine was founded via the Teague-Cranston Act. Now, they needed professors willing to help prove the college’s worth. The microbiology department head knew who he would call first. He immediately reached out to a former graduate student he knew from Michigan State: Dr. John Quarles.

I was the first faculty member in my department and one of the first for the whole college,” Quarles said. “It was stressful in that we had to achieve certain things in the first two years to get our full accreditation. It took us four years to earn full accreditation, which we all knew we would, but ‘What if?’ was always in the back of your mind.”

In the classroom, Quarles’ passion for virology and microbiology shone, winning him not only numerous teaching awards, but also significant approval from his students.

Quarles taught virology with vigour, earning numerous teaching awards, including The Association of Former Students' Distinguished Teaching Award in 1988.

“I think it was primarily because I taught something I really liked—virology,” Quarles said. “If I had to teach something else, I might not have had the excitement and grown as close to the students. Students respond to what their professors are really excited about and it helps them enjoy it, too.”

Outside of a teaching setting, the professor furthered his intellectual curiosity by joining forces with the Baylor College of Medicine to research new methods for safe, effective vaccination.

“Baylor had an influenza research center, funded by the National Institutes of Health, conducting human volunteer studies. Recruiting prison inmates to volunteer was no longer an option, so I went down there and convinced them I had the next best thing: a campus full of eager student volunteers,” Quarles recollected with a chuckle. “We tested a number of different vaccines and some drugs on participating students, but our focus was on the nose drop vaccine, which became the spray people use now.”

Virology in COVID-19

As a well-studied microbiologist and virologist, Quarles has closely followed the developments on the current COVID-19 pandemic. Through his research, the scholar said prevention methods are more effective if set in motion as soon as possible during an outbreak.

“There would be a lot fewer deaths if we had insisted on using masks and distancing from the beginning,” Quarles said. “We could have prevented most of the problem had we jumped on it early on, but we didn’t and it’s doing what viruses do: mutating. You must decrease the infection rate because viruses, especially RNA viruses, mutate at a very high rate, and if you have lots of infections, then it’s going to produce more variants.”

Despite the new variants springing up, Quarles is confident in a return to normal by the end of summer 2021, thanks to increased vaccine production and distribution.

“Having worked on vaccines for respiratory viruses for years, it’s remarkable how the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines have been manufactured in a very short time,” he said. “Granted, all three of them have emergency use authorization, but every indication is they are very effective and safe.”

Planning Research

After his retirement in 2015, Quarles kept up with the university, watching the program he had fostered in its infancy grow to be a flourishing part of the academic community.

“We had a number of good leaders in the College of Medicine and the university who somehow handled the rapid increase in enrollment while also improving the quality of education,” he shared. “Texas A&M was a much better university when I left than when I started there. It was small and hadn’t realized its potential back then, but it’s grown over the years and I enjoyed seeing that.”

Because of his love for science and the university that he called home for more nearly 40 years, Quarles planned a $1 million gift—by naming the Texas A&M Foundation as the beneficiary of his IRA—that will provide scholarships to low-income, first-generation students within the Science Leadership Scholars program after his lifetime.

“I am a first-generation college student, the first in my father’s family to earn a degree, and I really believe college and education is the key to solving a lot of problems,” Quarles said. “Not everyone can attend college, so I decided to fund a scholarship for the College of Science because science has been so good to me over the years. I just hope I help some kids who couldn’t ordinarily afford college, and I also hope to instill a love of science in students who might not have discovered it otherwise.”

In addition to scholarships, $250,000 of Quarles’ gift will be allocated to fund undergraduate research initiatives, allowing undergraduates to participate in lab work without worrying about working multiple jobs to afford college, like he did.

“Over the years, I usually had one, two or even three undergraduate students working in my lab, and it was a good experience for them,” Quarles said. “It was a good way to introduce students to working science so they could see the difficulties as well as the high spots. I think undergraduate research is a really important step in career growth and introduces students to science every day.”

To learn more about supporting the College of Science, contact Randy Lunsford ’89 using the form below. To learn more about planned giving, contact Angela Throne ’03 at