The Duke Community was saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Catherine Wilfert this past weekend. She leaves behind an extraordinary legacy of scholarship, patient care, advocacy, and mentorship.
Dr. Wilfert was born on 26 July 1936, in Inglewood, California. She graduated with distinction from Stanford College in 1958 and then attended Harvard Medical School. Her internship was at Boston City Hospital, and her residency was at North Carolina Baptist Hospital. In 1964, Wilfert returned to Boston, where she continued to work in pediatrics and medicine.
In 1971, she came to Duke University School of Medicine, where she achieved the rank of division chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases in the Department of Pediatrics (1976-1994) and professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. In 1996, she left Duke to become the scientific director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
Wilfert's work since the onset of AIDS was primarily focused on the eradication of pediatric AIDS, and she was considered a seminal investigator in the field. Her clinical trial group demonstrated the efficacy of using doses of AZT to reduce the incidence of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Due to the application of this knowledge, pediatric AIDS in the United States was been reduced by 75 percent. Wilfert extensively worked to reduce mother-to-infant transmission of AIDS in developing countries around the world. She also served as the chair of the Perinatal Working Group for the Prevention Trials Network (HPTN), sponsored by National Institutes of Health (NIH).
In addition to her scientific and clinical work, Wilfert was on the editorial board of numerous publications and served as a consultant for private companies, as well as U.S. and state governments. She received many awards, including the 1997 Award of Recognition for Outstanding Contributions to Advancing the Prevention of Perinatal Transmission at A Global Strategies Conference for the Prevention of HIV Transmission from Mothers to Infants. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in HIV from the Third International Meeting on HIV in India in 2001; was given the Distinguished Award of Honor for Love of Humanity Especially in the Third World from the Cameroon Baptist Convention on Occasion of Its 50th Anniversary Celebration, in 2004; and received the North Carolina Award for Science, in 2019. She was inducted to the Institute of Medicine in 1999.
In 2006, the Archives conducted an oral history interview with Dr. Wilfert. In the interview, she discusses her work with AIDS patients in developing countries and the development of the anti-HIV drug AZT. Her dedication and care for patients is exceedingly evident throughout the interview. One short exchange in particular really resonates. After Dr. Wilfert talks about access to prevention for mother-to-child HIV transmission, the interviewer Jessica Roseberry comments: “It sounds like it’s become your passion.” To which Dr Wilfert simply responds: “Well, it is, because I think it’s possible to reach people.”
To learn more about Dr. Wilfert’s life and legacy, please visit MEDSpace
to download a full transcript of her oral history interview or contact the Archives
for a copy of the audio recording.