Gillings School honors and mourns ‘force of nature’ Dr. Jo Anne Earp
November 19, 2022
Dr. Jo Anne Earp, professor emerita and past chair in the Department of Health Behavior — known for her fierceness and integrity, high impact research, commitment to equity and justice, and incredible devotion to mentoring — passed away in the early hours of November 18.
Dr. Earp’s 50-year legacy with the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and across generations of mentees was profoundly shaped by her early years on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Louisiana and Mississippi. After earning an English degree from Bryn Mawr in the early 1960s, she transferred to Newcomb College (now Tulane University) to be able to participate fully in the movement.
A defining moment for her came when she publicly confronted Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, for his tacit complicity in the disappearance of her fellow civil rights activists James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman. These experiences, and her recognition of the ways social stratification and inequities were reinforced through power structures across generations, would shape her decision to pursue a doctorate in science in medical sociology from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health.
One of the first women researchers at the UNC School of Public Health, Dr. Earp joined what was then called the Department of Health Education in 1974 to kick start their research program. She brought to her research and practice the same fiery passion she had displayed on the front lines of the civil rights movement.
In short order, she captured the department’s first National Institutes of Health grant; created and taught the first women’s health class at UNC-Chapel Hill; and developed the department’s first course on social and behavioral research methods. Her drive to end racial disparities carried through her career at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she co-founded the N.C. Breast Cancer Screening Program in the late 1980s, which was one of the first large-scale interventions testing the “lay health adviser” approach to promoting and protecting health.
The program proved to reduce the gap in mammography screening rates of Black and white women in rural North Carolina. Dr. Earp also produced more than 150 peer reviewed publications; co-edited the first textbook on patient advocacy; and served as chair of the Department of Health Behavior for 13 years.
“Interdisciplinary research is the best way to solve the public health problems we have,” she said of her efforts to boost the early detection of breast cancer. “Cooperation among researchers, rather than competition, is the best way for the public to benefit.”
Involving people who would potentially benefit from an intervention was also a core part of Dr. Earp’s philosophy and approach.
Although she is best known for reducing the racial gap in breast cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment in eastern North Carolina counties, Dr. Earp’s research is far from her only legacy. Over the decades she devoted to public health, she was also well known (and loved) for mentoring dozens of doctoral and hundreds of master’s students; generations of junior faculty (a number of whom are now deans of schools of public health), as well as staff and friends.
“I just learned that my former adviser and close friend, Jo Anne Earp, passed away unexpectedly,” wrote Erica Salem, a Gillings School alum, in an email sent yesterday morning. “I hope that any tribute will acknowledge what an amazing mentor she was. She fostered relationships that began with you as her student and continued throughout your post-graduate life. My daughter is currently an undergrad in the Department of Biostatistics, and Jo Anne had taken her under her broad wings as well.”
“Sharing work and friendship with Jo Anne has been one of the great honors of my life,” said Elizabeth French, associate dean for strategic initiatives at the Gillings School. “She was deep, interesting, warm, tough, multidimensional and brilliant. She was always pressing on towards the next project, the next goal; and she would speak in a kind of shorthand to deliver as much mentoring as possible as quickly as possible. An aphorism she used often — one I cherish — would come out after she had done some utterly magnanimous thing for you that you could never repay. She would close the subject briskly, saying: ‘Exchange — not in kind — over time.’ In other words, we share our particular gifts and talents with each other across the years and with our full abilities.”
This philosophy meant that people stayed in her orbit for decades. She was so well-loved at Carolina and beyond that her 2013 retirement party had its own name: “Earpfest.” The event drew hundreds of colleagues, former students and friends to celebrate her legacy, which only grew in the 10 years following her retirement. It also led mentees, friends and family members to establish both a scholarship and a distinguished professorship in her name.
French echoes the sentiments of many, then and now, about these endowments: “I hope to continue to honor Jo Anne’s legacy in the days and years to come by sharing what I can, when I can, and certainly giving back to the Gillings School, where she invested her intellect, heart and, yes, her treasure.”
“She was truly one of a kind,” seconded Dean Emerita Barbara K. Rimer, who is now a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Health Behavior. “I doubt the School ever has known a more dedicated and effective mentor — she helped faculty as well as students. To have been “Earped” was to have had one’s papers subjected to her purple pen, thereby joining a special group that resulted in leaps of quality. I counted on Jo Anne’s candid feedback and thoughtful observations about my performance as dean, and I will be forever grateful for how she made me better.”
“I would not have come to Carolina had it not been for the efforts of Jo Anne and her husband, Shelley Earp,” Dr. Rimer added. “Jo Anne’s love for Shelley was never absent from a conversation. They were joined as one, and we all grieve with and for him and their beautiful family. Dr. Jo Anne Earp was a force of nature. Even cancer did not stop her. Nothing did, until now, and we shall miss her deeply.”
“I am profoundly saddened by the loss of my mentor and friend,” said Dr. Kurt Ribisl, who carries on Dr. Earp’s legacy in his roles as both the current chair of the health behavior department and the Jo Anne Earp Distinguished Professor of health behavior. “I cannot think of any other individual in the history of our 80-year-old department who has had a more meaningful impact in shaping who we are today. In a department renowned for practice, she maintained that excellence while recruiting leading researchers and solidifying our reputation for research that makes a difference in the real world. I am deeply honored to hold the professorship bearing her name.”
Another of Dr. Earp’s well-known aphorisms was: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.”
The words of her extended community, which reaches around the world, confirm that she followed her own advice. She poured herself into her work and her relationships, embodying ‘a life well-lived’ and achieving far-reaching, positive impacts on the health and well-being of others.
It is, perhaps, best to give Dr. Earp herself the final word, excerpted from a speech she gave in 2019:
“I have had the best job in the world. I was privileged to have it, and felt that, as a result, it was incumbent on me to give back. It is mostly just luck, and to some extent perseverance, which has gotten me to where I am now. Some have said I led by example; others have told me that if staying as late at the office, working as hard as I seemed to do, was the example, they weren’t having any of it, thank you very much! What neither group realized was that I only knew one way of doing things: full steam ahead. I lacked a modulating gene! Doggedness I knew; determination I had; and a certain sense of how good other people were or had the potential to be.”
“My work legacy is the faculty and staff I hired or whose careers I supported, plus the students I advised, advocated for and launched. I wanted to create a culture of connection and collegiality — an environment where others could do what they did best, while I enjoyed myself along the way. In the end, although I certainly am proud of my work with the N.C. Breast Cancer Screening Program and how it helped to reduce inequities in health care access in other ways, my primary role has been as an advocate, connector, bridge-builder, ally, supporter, cheerleader and networker — really, just a guardian of what was entrusted to me.”
Donations in memory of Dr. Earp may be made in support of The Jo Anne Earp Scholarship Fund in Health Behavior and Health Education (444561) or The Jo Anne Earp Distinguished Professorship in Health Behavior (444743) at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. Please make checks payable to the “UNC-CH Public Health Foundation” and mail to UNC-Chapel Hill, P.O. Box 309, Chapel Hill, NC 27514. (Please write “In memory of Jo Anne Earp” in the memo line and note if the gift is for the scholarship or professorship.) You may also donate online at go.unc.edu/JEarp.
Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at email@example.com.