Battling epidemics is nothing new to Rochelle P. Walensky ’95, the new director of the nation’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Walensky says she was inspired to pursue a career combating infectious diseases during her 1995–1998 Osler residency, when patients with HIV/AIDS were flooding The Johns Hopkins Hospital. “As interns, we were each admitting six or seven patients a night and half of them had HIV or were dying of AIDS,” Walensky recalled in an interview with The Lancet. “We could prevent or treat some of their opportunistic infections, but we didn’t give them a lot of hope.”
By the end of 1995, however, the FDA approved a new cocktail of powerful anti-retroviral drugs, which had been advanced by Johns Hopkins’ John Bartlett (who died in January) and Richard Chaisson. AIDS was no longer a death sentence, and observing how the “gentle, brilliant” Bartlett and Chaisson cared for AIDS patients “was really remarkable to watch,” Walensky has said. She decided to dedicate her career to improving the fields of HIV medicine and global health policy and rose steadily in academic medicine as a researcher and clinician.
She was chief of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases and a professor of medicine at Harvard’s medical school when President-elect Joe Biden tapped her in December to restore the integrity and morale of the CDC, both of which were battered by political interference as the COVID-19 pandemic exploded. Five former agency directors, including Richard Besser (HS, pediatrics, 1986–1991), have said the agency’s reputation had been severely damaged.
Walensky, 51, has written that she is determined to restore the CDC’s luster and public trust. She knows the challenges she faces are immense: running an $8 billion agency with 15,000 employees, including 1,700 scientists in more than 200 laboratories. She surely is banking on her training and experience at Hopkins — where she also met and married Loren Walensky ’97, a pediatric oncologist at the Dana-Farber Institute and Harvard.“Hopkins gave me the roots, the place, the route and the network” to pursue a highly successful academic career, she said in a 2014 interview. “I have much of my heart there."