Remembering Dr. Joseph Cook: A Thoughtful Leader and Tropical Disease Visionary

On October 1, the global health community lost a thoughtful mentor, friend, colleague and devoted advocate to end neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), Dr. Joseph Allen Cook (1934-2022).

From 1998 – 2003, Dr. Cook served as the first director of The Task Force for Global Health’s International Trachoma Initiative (ITI), an organization formed in 1998 by a partnership between the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and Pfizer, Inc. to help answer the World Health Organization (WHO)’s call to eliminate trachoma, the world’s leading infectious cause of blindness.

With a background in internal medicine and a degree from the Harvard School of Public Health in infectious tropical diseases, Dr. Cook was determined to make a difference in global public health.

I always valued his warmth, kindness and knowledge that was critical in those early days of the ITI program development,” said Dr. Joe Feczko, former senior vice president and chief medical officer of Pfizer, Inc.

Agatha Aboe, former ITI Ghana country director (2002-2009), echoed the positive impact of having worked with Dr. Cook.

“He was such a great but humble leader who cared very deeply about people, especially people in deprived areas,” she said. “He was so passionate about the elimination of trachoma. He said ‘No one should go blind from trachoma’ which we all have been quoting since and has helped us to get this far in our fight against blinding trachoma.”

Dr. Cook observes as antibiotics are given for the treatment of trachoma in Morocco (1999). Photo originally published in Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine in 2000.

Dr. Cook was instrumental in helping develop the WHO-endorsed SAFE strategy (Surgery, Antibiotic treatment, Facial cleanliness, Environmental improvement) to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem. Carrying on the work he began, ITI has contributed to the ultimate elimination of trachoma by stewarding Pfizer’s donation of Zithromax® to treat and prevent the condition; building and strengthening partnerships to accelerate progress; and developing innovative tools to share data.

“We wouldn’t be where we are without Joe and we all know the critical role he played in the establishment of ITI and in the donation of azithromycin,” said Dr. Serge Resnikoff, retired Director of Prevention of Blindness and Deafness at WHO, past chair of the International Coalition for Trachoma Control, and former member of the Trachoma Expert Committee. “What is perhaps less well known is the role he played during the ice age of trachoma, when no one was interested in this ‘old disease’ except a dozen or so individuals at WHO and in a handful of research institutions. Joe managed to mobilize the funds from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation that allowed the work to continue despite all odds, and especially to generate the SAFE strategy, as well as to set up the GET2020 alliance [WHO Alliance for the Global Elimination of Trachoma by the year 2020].”

Prior to founding ITI, Dr. Cook spent 24 years as the director of the Tropical Disease Research program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and before that he managed clinical and field studies in St. Lucia focused on controlling schistosomiasis for the Rockefeller Foundation. Many schistosomiasis programs in Africa were based on the crucial findings in Dr. Cook’s research.

Many in the NTD community were privileged to have been mentored by him, and influenced by his groundbreaking ideas to free communities around the world from trachoma and other debilitating diseases like schistosomiasis and onchocerciasis (river blindness).

“Joe was so kind to me as I found my professional legs in a complex and political environment,” said Lisa Tapert, former program associate at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation/Tropical Disease Research Program in 1997. “He was interested in others and deeply committed to his family and his work. And I learned many lessons from him that carried me through my professional career. He taught me to be tough and strategic, but fair, and to appreciate Swiss chocolate. He had a long-term commitment to disease control, specifically to onchocerciasis research, and of course to trachoma.”

A 2018 video interview with Dr. Cook, in honor of ITI’s 20th Anniversary, conveyed the kindness, knowledge and passion described by his former colleagues. This clip [1:26-4:00] discusses his role and the impact of the program.

Dr. Cook shared his expertise and work on neglected tropical diseases by serving on committees in the U.S. and other countries, and for the World Health Organization, and he was a former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

“Joe Cook had vision–he recognized that all of the necessary pieces were there and was willing to take a risk to create the ITI from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation,” said Dr. Paul Courtright, co-founder of the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology in South Africa “He had to convince some skeptics and get all of the players on board–but that is what he did. The trachoma community is indebted to him–and will always remember his vision for trachoma elimination.”

Dr. Sheila West, El Maghraby Professor of Ophthalmology at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, fondly remembered the impact that Dr. Cook had.

“Joe will be remembered for his dedication to ridding the world of neglected tropical diseases, and his stewardship of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the International Trachoma Initiative are testaments to his desire to further research and programs to that end,” said Dr. West.” I will remember Joe for the breadth of his scientific interest. He pushed to fund the first clinical trial of facial cleanliness to decrease trachoma transmission in Kongwa, Tanzania, feeling that antibiotics alone may be insufficient. Joe’s gentlemanly demeanor and good humor, coupled with strong leadership, were rare commodities and we will miss him.”

Paul Emerson, current Director of ITI, said “although we have lost Joe physically, his vision and passion live on at ITI. The principles and guidance that he laid down still drive us to achieve his goal of a world free from trachoma.”

From left to right: Dr. Mark Rosenberg, former President and CEO of The Task Force for Global Health, Dr. Joseph Cook, first Director of ITI, and Dr. Paul Emerson, current Director of ITI.

We send our deepest condolences to Dr. Cook’s family and friends and will continue to carry on his legacy of compassion and commitment to a future free from trachoma and other neglected tropical diseases.

Photos courtesy of the International Trachoma Initiative

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