The awards, given annually since 1949, were established by the will of Gov. Oliver Max Gardner to recognize faculty who have “made the greatest contributions to the welfare of the human race.” It is the only award for which all faculty members of the 17 UNC campuses are eligible. Recipients are nominated by their chancellors and selected by the Board of Governors. The 2008 award carries a $20,000 cash prize and was presented by Board of Governors Chairman Jim Phillips and Gardner Award Committee Chairman Dudley Flood of Raleigh.
A UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member for the past 27 years, Cohen is the J. Herbert Bate Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Public Health and has served as director of the medical school’s Division of Infectious Diseases since 1989. After earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and his MD degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago, he completed a residency in internal medicine at the University of Michigan and a fellowship in infectious diseases at Yale University. Cohen joined the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty in 1980—the very year that AIDS was first identified—and has spent more than two decades building a multidisciplinary team of researchers devoted to studying the transmission and prevention of the virus responsible for this devastating disease. He was one of the first to recognize that any attempt to stem the AIDS epidemic would require an international program targeting improved care, treatment, and research in developing countries. He and his colleagues have built and sustained research and medical training projects in resource-poor countries such as Malawi, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa, and Russia, as well as the United States.
Cohen’s team of researchers at Carolina developed sensitive assays to measure the concentration of the HIV virus in bodily fluids and was among the first to demonstrate that the presence of other sexually transmitted diseases can increase the likelihood of HIV transmission. Their research provided the scientific foundation for the Center for Disease Control’s 2005 strategic plan for HIV prevention and led the National Institutes of Health to tap UNC-Chapel Hill to help develop a safe and effective vaccine against HIV/AIDS.
The author of more than 400 articles, book chapters, or books, Cohen is one of the most widely published infectious disease researchers in the U.S. In recognition of his vast contributions to global health, he previously has been awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Rush Medical College, the Thomas Parran Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Society of Venereal Diseases, and a National Institutes of Health MERIT Award, He also has served on a number of professional boards, scientific panels, and editorial boards and currently is associate editor of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.