Driving down a long stretch of narrow road about 20 minutes west of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, if you pay close attention you might spot a gravel driveway that leads to a charming, yet modest farm. If you’re lucky enough to meet its diminutive, white-haired occupant, Catherine M. Wilfert, MD, you probably wouldn’t know that you had just encountered a giant of a woman credited with saving countless lives.
Her home – shared with her husband of more than 40 years and himself a pillar in the field of infectious diseases (ID) — is a suitable metaphor for Dr. Wilfert herself. Quiet, humble, and powerfully enchanting, Dr. Wilfert’s unassuming demeanor belies the many accomplishments of her career in ID. But more on her brilliant career later.
Dr. Wilfert (simply “Cathy” to friends and family) is an avid gardener, seamstress, photographer and admirer of visual artists, her favorite being Georgia O’Keeffe. She is a mother to eight and grandmother to 17.
Driven by her tenacious spirit, it’s clear no challenge is too great for her. A few years back, several men delivered more than two tons of stone to her driveway. Over the course of one short summer, Dr. Wilfert painstakingly placed each stone herself in the exact location she wanted.
She doesn’t intimidate easily and she doesn’t give up easily. In the face of obstacles, she is fearless. We’ll start with her early years.
Since her grandparents didn’t allow Dr. Wilfert’s mother to attend college, Dr. Wilfert’s mother made certain that “no matter the gender of her children, all would have access to every possible educational opportunity.” Born July 26, 1936, in Inglewood, California, Dr. Wilfert earned her undergraduate degree with distinction from Stanford University in 1958. “I remember one of my professors telling me not to bother applying to Harvard Medical School, so I thought, I’ll show him.” She went on to graduate summa cum laude in 1962, one of just five female medical students to finish.
During her residency at Boston City Hospital, Dr. Wilfert had to be inventive where the hospital was not. There were no break or sleeping rooms for on-call female residents so Dr. Wilfert would hustle across a busy Boston street to grab sleep in the nurse’s quarters.
“The male residents had a house with a swimming pool,” she chuckled “and sometimes after a long shift at the hospital, I would jimmy the lock and let myself in so that I could take a swim.”
Because she had no female mentors at medical school or early in her career, Dr. Wilfert made sure to make herself available to women medical students when it was her turn to teach the next generation of doctors. “Teaching is the ultimate reward because you get to pass your knowledge on and help shape younger people,” Dr. Wilfert noted. “I’ve always enjoyed the success of the fellows in infectious diseases as they assume teaching roles at other universities. That’s the ultimate satisfaction.”
Dr. Wilfert was at the epicenter of tremendous strides in infectious diseases treatment in the early 1960s when she interned under the direction of Nobel Laureate Dr. John Enders, later known as the father of modern vaccines.
“Infectious diseases was exciting because of the newly developing antibiotics,” she recalled. “ID was one of those rare specialties where you could cure people from previously fatal diseases. And the childhood vaccines eliminated the scourges of tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and many more. You could prevent illnesses.”
That passion for prevention and treatment fueled Dr. Wilfert’s career as she moved into a combination of clinical work, research and teaching. In 1969, she joined the Duke University School of Medicine and later was named Division Chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases in the Department of Pediatrics, a position she held until the mid-90s, along with serving as a professor of pediatrics and microbiology.
Her research included clinical trials of vaccines in children and later, therapeutic trials for children with HIV. She was principal investigator of the pediatric AIDS Clinical Trials Unit at Duke, which launched in 1987. Dr. Wilfert is best known for her groundbreaking work in pediatric HIV prevention. Through this trailblazing work, she is credited with saving countless lives.
Dr. Wilfert recalled her first encounter with pediatric AIDS. “He was just a baby, six months old, who ultimately died. He was tremendously ill, dying in intensive care and none of us knew what was the matter with him (that was before the HIV antibody test). I didn’t know until after the fact that his mother had HIV. We learned subsequently that his mother had been hospitalized with pneumocystis pneumonia. Only at post-mortem did it become obvious that he had some sort of immune deficiency.”
In the face of AIDS, then a frightening, mysterious and virtual death sentence for those in its path, Dr. Wilfert did not blink, did not step back, but instead stood fearless. While some doctors refused to see HIV/AIDS patients and refused infected patients’ blood in their labs, Dr. Wilfert stepped forward and began treating children with the virus.
“A lot of people were afraid, but I wasn’t. I knew how it was transmitted and I always took precautions. We took care of polio patients, which is more contagious than HIV,” she said. “The kids didn’t ask to be infected, they were just unlucky. The patients were predominantly poor and disadvantaged.”
For many years, there was little that could be done for HIV-infected children. Thankfully, in 1987, the Food and Drug Administration approved AZT (azidothymidine), found to stop the reproduction of DNA and reduce the viral load (the amount of virus in the blood), as the first weapon against HIV.
The pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome, whose staff included a former fellow of Dr. Wilfert’s, developed AZT. Dr. Wilfert’s ongoing friendship with her resident ensured that Duke’s medical facility was one of the drug’s early trial sites. That connection proved pivotal.
Dr. Wilfert theorized that by reducing the viral load of infected mothers, she could diminish the amount of virus their babies were exposed to, thereby reducing HIV transmission from mother to baby. Turns out, she was right.
Duke estimates the application of Dr. Wilfert’s concept led to the reduction of mother-to-baby transmission of HIV by 75 percent in the United States.
Dr. Wilfert left Duke in 1996 to take on the role of Scientific Director at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. There, she continued her work to prevent mother-to-baby HIV transmissions around the world. “I traveled to Africa and Asia more than 60 times in just 10 years.”
Throughout her remarkable career, managing the balance between home and professional life was difficult, but was another challenge Dr. Wilfert faced with aplomb. “My kids will tell you that I didn’t balance it very well because I never appeared for the parent volunteer times at their schools,” she said. “But I didn’t travel much when they were young and until they went to college we always had dinner together and I made all their clothes.”
For women in or pursuing the demanding field of medicine today, Dr. Wilfert offers the following advice: “Your family has to come first and you can’t let [family] opportunities go by because you can’t get them back.”
We are very sad to share Dr. Wilfert passed away in September of 2020. If you would like to make a donation to the Foundation in her memory, you would help to continue her incredible legacy. Donate now.
The IDSA Foundation honors Catherine Wilfert, MD, an unstoppable maverick in the field of infectious diseases, for all the lives she saved and diseases she prevented. Thank you, Dr. Wilfert.