Known as the “Gentle Giant of Global Health,” Foege is the latest recipient of the Rev. Robert Ross Johnson Humanitarian Award presented by the Rotary Club of Buckhead to a non-Buckhead Rotarian who exemplifies the organization's "service above self" motto.
The 6-foot-7 epidemiologist is credited with developing the strategy that eradicated smallpox globally in the late 1970s.
“It’s clear that Rev. Johnson was such a special person. … I thank you for your honoring of him and me,” Foege told a crowd of Rotarians assembled for the annual awards luncheon at Maggiano’s Little Italy in Buckhead.
Foege spent a sizable portion of his career in Africa and India mobilizing resources to provide mass immunizations.
Also a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in DeKalb County, his work in Third World countries helped lead to the advent of the Task Force for Global Health.
As part of Monday’s award ceremony, Foege was lauded via video by a pair of fellow luminaries in former President Jimmy Carter and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Foege is a former executive director at the Carter Center in Atlanta and served as senior medical advisor for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation from 1999 until his recent retirement.
“Except for my father, two men have helped to shape who I am — one of them is Bill Foege,” Carter said. “Much more significant than changing my life, he’s changed the lives of millions of other people around the world who will never suffer from smallpox, who will never [incur] rural blindness … millions of children who will not die from dehydration because of diarrhea, and thousands of newborn babies who will not die in Pakistan because he taught the mothers not to cover their umbilical cords with buffalo fat. Those are the kind of practical contributions that he has made to untold millions of people in many nations on earth.”
Being feted by the Buckhead Rotary is Foege’s latest accolade in a remarkable career. He is also a past recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
During his time at the podium Monday, Foege praised the humanitarian award’s namesake before shifting gears to talk of the ongoing campaign to wipe out polio, in which Rotarians have a stake via more than $100 million in fundraising efforts.
“Right now it’s such a crucial and different time,” he said. “None of us could have predicted 30, 20 or even 10 years ago that people — in places like Nigeria and Pakistan — would be shot and killed just because they were giving polio vaccinations.
“So, it’s not a scientific problem; it’s a social problem. … I thank all of you for finding your home in polio eradication and global health.”