A BATTLE STILL RAGES IN THE
ALAMO CITY: KEEPING A VIBRANT
In 1691, a Spanish expedition stopped in South Central Texas on
the feast day of Saint Anthony of Padua. That visit is forever commemorated in the name of San Antonio, which today is home to
over 1. 7 million residents (59% Hispanic, including all races), making
it the 7th most populous city in the country. It is also the third
fastest growing, with its population spreading out across Bexar
(pronounced “bear”) County.
Contemporary San Antonio reflects a conglomeration of influences
from cowboys to urbanites and from Spanish to Tex-Mex to
Mark Wade, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District
Laboratory (SAMHDL), said, “The first Spanish mission was built here
in 1718, called San Antonio de Valero, along with four more missions
along the San Antonio River. The original mission—then called the
Alamo—became a Spanish military outpost to defend against
regional hostilities in 1794. The rest is history.”
That famed former mission—together with San Antonio’s River Walk,
rodeo, Sea World and Six Flags amusement park—draws more than
25 million visitors each year. The city’s Mission Trail Project will add
a further enticement with a linear park linking all of the area’s historic missions with biking and walking paths.
The vibrant tourism industry exists side-by-side with a continuing
military presence: two US Air Force bases (down from four a few
years ago) and a large US Army post.
Although the primary focus of the SAMHDL is San Antonio and
Bexar County, it also performs some services (e.g., rabies and dairy
testing, bioterrorism and influenza surveillance) on behalf of Texas’s
entire 29-county Region 8 Health District.
The main portion of the SAMHDL is on the second floor of the
former Plaza Continental Hotel, which opened in downtown San
Antonio in 1898. “As I look out my window,” said Wade, “I see two
Mexican restaurants with apartments on top, old 1800s store fronts
and a Mexican Western wear store, and, to the right of that, a
The laboratory takes up about 6,000 feet in the 40,000 square-foot
building, which also houses the San Antonio Health Department.
Asked about renovations, Wade said, “I had it repainted this year.”
The SAMHDL LRN laboratory is located about nine miles from the
main facility in the basement of a building at the former Brooks Air
Force Base. “It is a modern laboratory,” said Wade, with 4,300 square
feet of containment space, including BSL- 2 and BSL- 3 suites.
Wade “started out” in life as an electrician in his family’s electrical contracting and construction business in Fort Worth, Texas. “I
decided that was not for me,” he said. “I was always interested in
science, and I joined the air force and became a medical technologist.” That career move led to 20 years of diverse and increasingly
responsible positions in Japan; Guam; Montgomery, Alabama; and
back home in Texas.
“Every military installation is like its own city,” said Wade, requiring
its own clinical and environmental laboratory services. At one time
or another, Wade worked in—and eventually supervised—just about
every laboratory position available. He set up and ran blood donation
stations and clinical laboratory operations; performed histopathologic examinations; conducted autopsies; and tested drinking water,
wastewater, hazardous waste, industrial hygiene and radioanalyti-cal samples. “The military,” said Wade, “is a good training ground for
In his last position at the Air Force Research Laboratory in San
Antonio, the mission was to develop biotechnology for detection,
identification, monitoring, neutralization and assessment of
biological threat agents. He managed researchers and their projects,
supported select agent work, and designed and oversaw construction of a BSL- 3 laboratory for select agent testing to verify the
efficacy of research technology. “When it went live,” he said,
“it was my job to oversee all the testing that went on in
After retiring, the air force retained Wade as a biocontainment
consultant. That job lasted long enough for him to play a key role
designing new biocontainment laboratory facilities in Ohio and to
watch his old counter-proliferation “mission” move to the Midwest
as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Act.
In 2008, he applied for his current position as head of the SAMHDL.
“I didn’t have any public health experience per se,” said Wade,
“but the culmination of my background has been training for this
position all along. I fit right into the niche.”
The main SAMHDL facility employs 11 people, down from 29 about
five years ago. Staff losses have been the result of budget cuts and
attrition. Today, Wade said, “I don’t allow any vacancies to go
unfilled. As soon as I know I’m going to have one, I fill it immediately, as if my life depended on it. We need the manpower to maintain
current capability and capacity.”
He said, “Most of our people are very experienced and cross-trained
in many disciplines. Their expertise and dedication are what make it
possible for our operations to be so successful.”