Sorenson, former chair of health behavior, dead at 74

March 15, 2017

James Roger Sorenson, PhD, chair of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Health Behavior from 1985 to 1996, died in Pittsboro, N.C., on March 13, 2017. He was 74.

Dr. Jim Sorenson, circled in red, joined other members of Dean Michel Ibrahim's cabinet for a 1990 photo.

Dr. Jim Sorenson, circled in red, joined other members of Dean Michel Ibrahim’s cabinet for a 1990 photo.

Sorenson, who earned a doctorate at Princeton University, was a sociologist who led the Boston University School of Public Health’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences before joining the faculty at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At UNC’s public health school, he helped refocus the educational mission of his department upon graduate studies. In 1995, Sorenson disbanded the active undergraduate program in health education and significantly enlarged the graduate program, increasing the average number of students in each cohort from one or two to between five and 10. He hired several new faculty members with strong backgrounds in research and worked to recruit promising doctoral applicants.

Sorenson also led the effort to change the department’s name. Previously known as the Department of Health Education, the academic unit was renamed the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education to reflect the broader scope of faculty research on behavioral, social and cultural determinants of and solutions to major public health problems.

“Jim was a pioneer in health behavior genetics research several years before that research area became a priority for the National Institutes of Health, said Jo Anne Earp, ScD, who succeeded Sorenson in 1996 as department chair. “He was instrumental in expanding the department’s research strength and areas of expertise, thanks to the excellent faculty members he hired, especially in adolescent health.”

Sorenson is survived by his wife Nancy and other family members.


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