Ward Cates, public health champion and beloved mentor, is dead at 73

March 18, 2016

Dr. Ward Cates

Dr. Ward Cates

The world has lost a public health champion, pioneer researcher in the fields of HIV/AIDS and women’s reproductive health, and compassionate mentor and friend. Willard (Ward) Cates Jr., MD, MPH, distinguished scientist and president emeritus of FHI 360, died on March 17, 2016, at the age of 73.

Dr. Cates earned Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees at Yale University in 1971. After service in the U.S. Army, where he achieved the rank of captain, he began a two-year fellowship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Epidemic Intelligence Service.

The fellowship, which helped launch his long and storied career in public health, began shortly after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. His focus on women’s reproductive health led him to serve as the first chief of the Abortion Surveillance Branch at the CDC, where he quickly emerged as the world’s leading abortion epidemiologist. Nine years later, at the dawn of the HIV epidemic in the U.S., he became director of the CDC’s Division of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Working on the Kaposi Sarcoma/Opportunistic Infections Task Force, he became interested in the global AIDS epidemic.

In 1994, Dr. Cates was recruited to work in research at Family Health International (now FHI 360), a leading global development organization. He served as president and chief executive officer of its Institute for Family Health and was, at the time of his passing, serving as president emeritus of research. While at FHI 360, he served as principal investigator on many microbicide trials, including of a gel that reduced HIV acquisition in women by 39 percent. From 1997 to 2002, he was a scientific investigator for the HIV Prevention Trials Network and principal investigator for the Microbicide Trials Network. He was a member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine.

A renowned public health leader, Dr. Cates inspired two generations of leading scientists, public health officials and clinical practitioners, providing guidance in family planning, STD/HIV prevention and epidemiology. He co-authored eight editions of Contraceptive Technology, widely regarded as the premier textbook in family planning. He was a sought-after speaker at the twice-yearly Contraceptive Technology conferences, and he co-edited two supplements on family planning and HIV for the journal AIDS. He authored more than 450 scientific publications and won several honors for his global leadership in HIV prevention, research and reproductive health.

At the Gillings School of Global Public Health, Dr. Cates was a valued member of the School’s advisory council and generously offered collaboration and support to students and the School’s leaders. Along with Margaret (Peggy) Bentley, PhD, Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition and associate dean for global health, and Gretchen Van Vliet, MPH, then director of the Gillings School’s Office of Global Health and now at FHI 360, Dr. Cates established the FHI 360-UNC fellowship program in 2005. Currently in its 11th year, the program has given 27 public health graduate students the opportunity to work directly with experienced scientists on real-world global health projects in more than 40 country offices in Africa and Asia.

“The FHI 360-UNC Fellowship immediately became a go-to internship, for which students clamored to be chosen,” said Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the UNC Gillings School. “On the School’s advisory council, we always looked to him for his clear, knowledgeable and upbeat advice.”

Rimer said Cates had a great sense of the future of global health and was, in fact, among the first to respond enthusiastically to the proposal to add “global” to the School’s name in 2007.

“Ward was a courageous, charismatic, exuberant and brilliant leader whose positive outlook on life was not dimmed by a devastating cancer diagnosis,” Rimer said. “A trusted adviser, colleague and friend, he was forever curious and learning new things, always filled with a zest for life. We are profoundly saddened by his loss and extend our condolences and friendship to his wife, Dr. Joan Cates, who is a collaborator, colleague and friend of many in the School, and to their daughters, Deb and Sara.”

Interment will be at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Va. A celebration of his life will be held later this spring. Donations may be made in his memory to The Guttmacher Institute, 125 Maiden Lane, 7th floor, New York, N.Y. 10038.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu