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Wilfert receives North Carolina Award for Science

Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Catherine Wilfert, MD

The state’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award, was presented to six distinguished North Carolinians, including Catherine M. Wilfert, MD, Saturday, Nov. 16, at the Raleigh Convention Center. Governor Roy Cooper presented the award at a 7 p.m. banquet and ceremony. The award was created by the General Assembly in 1961 to recognize significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science.

The 2019 honorees are Catherine M. Wilfert, MD of Chapel Hill for Science, Rev. Dr. William Joseph Barber II of Goldsboro for Public Service, W. Earl Britt of Raleigh for Public Service, Philip Gerard of Wilmington for Literature, Deborah S. Proctor of Wake Forest for Public Service, and Lawrence J. Wheeler of Chapel Hill for Fine Arts.

Science: Catherine M. Wilfert, MD

Dr. Catherine Wilfert has dedicated her career to researching and treating HIV, with a particular emphasis on treating and preventing pediatric AIDS. Millions of people around the world owe their lives to her pioneering work in the field.

For her groundbreaking research in preventing maternal transmission of HIV and her tireless dedication to pediatric AIDS prevention and treatment, Catherine M. Wilfert, M.D. receives the 2019 North Carolina Award for Science.

Born in Inglewood, California, Dr. Catherine Wilfert began her career by graduating with distinction from Stanford University and summa cum laude from Harvard Medical school as one of five women in her class in 1958. Dr. Wilfert made her way to North Carolina in 1969 to take a faculty position in Pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine. Early into her career, Dr. Wilfert contributed significant work in virology and epidemiology of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. In 1976, Dr. Wilfert was named the Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. During this time, Dr. Wilfert married Dr. Samuel Katz in 1971.

During the 1980s, when North Carolina and the United States saw a significant rise of HIV and AIDS, Dr. Wilfert experienced first-hand the devastating effects of pediatric AIDS in her work. Seeing the increasing number of children who shared the same diagnosis, Dr. Wilfert soon established a pediatric infectious disease clinic at Duke University. After further research, Dr. Wilfert discovered that giving HIV positive pregnant women AZT, the first FDA approved treatment for HIV, reduced the risk of infant transmission by over 60 percent.

Years of hard work and research later, the percentage of perinatal HIV transmission in North Carolina decreased from 25 percent in 1993 to 2 percent in 1997. Further research has dropped the transmission rate to less than one percent, an accomplishment only possible through her research and advocacy. The American Academy of Pediatrics named this achievement one of the “7 Great Achievements in Pediatric Research.”

In 1996, Dr. Wilfert was named scientific director of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in Washington D.C. With the knowledge and results of her work in North Carolina, Dr. Wilfert led the Call To Action, a monumental effort to reduce perinatal HIV transmission in Thailand, South Africa, Kenya, Cameroon, and Uganda, setting up local clinics and public health systems to provide treatment and preventive care for pregnant women, mothers, and infants. This resulted in a 47 percent decrease in new HIV infections globally.

The world has taken notice of her remarkable work. In 1999, Dr. Wilfert became only the second female president of the Infectious Disease Society of America, and she was inducted into the Institute of Medicine. In 2001, Dr. Wilfert was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in HIV from the Third International Meeting on HIV. In addition to countless other awards and recognitions, Dr. Wilfert is a mentor to hundreds of physicians globally and continues to be a leader and advocate in pediatric AIDS prevention and treatment.

Dr. Wilfert is currently the Davison Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Duke University Medical Center. She has two children, Rachel and Katie, six step-children, John, David, Deborah, Bill, Susan and Penelope, and 17 grandchildren.​

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Additional Winners

Public Service: Rev. Dr. William Joseph Barber II

The Reverend Dr. William Barber is a pastor and social justice advocate who has built a broad-based, national grassroots movement that seeks to confront and address systemic racism, poverty, environmental devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism in America. As president of the NC NAACP, Dr. Barber led efforts to develop a new 21st Century voter registration/voter participation system that registered more than 442,000 new voters and provided access to 1.5 million voters nationwide. Through his work with the NAACP, he built a coalition of NAACP chapters, social justice organizations and other advocacy groups around the state to form Historic Thousands on Jones Street, with the goal of influencing legislative policies on key issues such as health care, voting rights and immigration. In 2017, Dr. Barber stepped down from the NC NAACP presidency to lead the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, uniting a movement begun in North Carolina with activists across the country. 

Public Service: W. Earl Britt

W. Earl Britt has been a Senior Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina since 1997, having been nominated to a seat on the court in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. Instrumental in establishing HOPE (Helping Offenders Pursue Excellence), a program for the rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders, he is known not just as a skilled and dedicated jurist, but for his compassion and mercy on the bench. As part of his judicial duties, Judge Britt enthusiastically presides over the Naturalization Ceremony at the International Festival of Raleigh and at naturalization ceremonies held elsewhere in his district, introducing hundreds of new citizens each year to their life as Americans. Judge Britt continues to work diligently as an advocate for a fair and compassionate judicial system.   

Literature: Philip Gerard

Award-winning author Philip Gerard is perhaps best known for his work Cape Fear Rising, a novel about the Wilmington Coup of 1898. He is the author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently The Last Battleground: The Civil War Comes to North Carolina.  He has also written 11 documentary television scripts, numerous radio essays, several magazine series, and an award-winning radio drama. Gerard played a significant role in developing the Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington shortly after joining the university’s English Department in 1989 and has seen the program grow to become a thriving department. An avid musician, Gerard plays guitar, dobro, pedal steel guitar and banjo, and often incorporates bluegrass, folk and original music into his readings. His work, both fiction and nonfiction, shines a light on North Carolina’s history, environment and culture. 

Public Service:  Deborah S. Proctor

In the early 1970s, Deborah Proctor and four classmates at N.C. State University built a 12,500-watt transmitter by hand and connected it to a makeshift studio in a house five miles from campus – and WCPE, the Triangle’s classical music station, was born. Today WCPE reaches audiences throughout North Carolina, across the country and around the world via satellite and online streaming. In addition to earning numerous awards for its programming, WCPE and Deborah Proctor, its general manager, have received recognition for their commitment to public service. Proctor’s advocacy on behalf of local and independent broadcasting has been a hallmark of her leadership at the station. During her tenure, she successfully sued the FCC for the right to transmit WCPE on FM at full power, equalizing the rules between public and commercial radio. She has worked throughout her career to promote and help small, independent and public broadcasters remain viable in the era of online broadcasting. Her tireless efforts have introduced countless North Carolinians to the joy of classical music and leveled the playing field for public radio stations nationwide. 

Fine Arts:  Lawrence J. Wheeler

As the longest-serving director of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Lawrence Wheeler led the museum to new heights, shaping it into one of the leading art museums in the country and a welcoming community space for a growing city and state. He passionately worked to expand the museum’s collection, including securing a gift of 30 Auguste Rodin sculptures from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in 2009, making the NCMA the largest repository of Rodin’s work in the American South. His commitment to collecting lead African American and international artists of our time strengthened the diversity of the museum’s modern collection. Under Wheeler’s leadership, an ambitious expansion in 2010 resulted in a spacious, light-filled structure, surrounded by sculpture gardens and reflecting pools, presenting works drawn from the NCMA’s outstanding permanent collection. Wheeler also oversaw the innovative redesign and transformation of the Museum Park, which is among the largest museum parks in the world. Thanks to his vision and leadership, North Carolinians of all walks of life have access to one of the most renowned art museums in the country.

Source: NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources