Former Islander Dr. Foege receives highest civilian honor

Former Islander Dr. William Foege was chosen last week to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

The award is given each year to people who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace or cultural or other significant endeavors. Foege is credited with devising the strategy to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, saving millions of lives.

His long career in public health included serving as the director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and as a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He also is a professor emeritus at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta and an affiliate professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health.

Currently he and his wife Paula are living in Atlanta, where is working on a book of his experiences while he was working at the CDC.

Showing the humility for which he is known, Foege, when reached in Atlanta by The Beachcomber, noted that his work involved a team of people.

"I always feel a bit uncomfortable about awards," he said. "No one does these things alone. It's a group effort."

He also noted that the positive aspect of the award is that it puts attention on the importance of public and global health efforts.

In all, 13 awards will given out to such luminaries as Madeline Albright, John Glenn, Toni Morrison, Shimon Peres and fellow Washingtonian Gordon Hirabayashi, who refused to report for evacuation to an internment camp in World War II and was convicted of defying the order. He appealed his conviction to the U.S.Supreme Court, which ruled against him. He spent time in prison, then obtained his doctoral degree and became a professor.

Foege singled Hirabayashi out for praise"He'd been a hero of mine for some time," he said, noting that because of Hirabayashi's death in January, the award is bittersweet.

In a recent statement, Pres. Barack Obama noted the accomplishments of the recipients. "These extraordinary honorees come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our nation. They’ve challenged us, they’ve inspired us, and they’ve made the world a better place. I look forward to recognizing them with this award.”

The awards ceremony will be held next month at a White House ceremony.

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