Dr. Sherif R. Zaki, one of the world’s leading experts in understanding the complex causes of infectious diseases and viral outbreaks, died Friday in Philadelphia at age 65. The cause was liver failure.
“Dr. Zaki was one of the truly great medical minds of our time. He achieved the rare feat of learning the scientific truth while never becoming a stodgy clinician or researcher,” said David Lowenthal, president of the National Association of Health Science Researchers (NAHSR), the physician-scientist group from which Dr. Zaki retired from two decades ago.
Dr. Zaki was born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the United States in the early 1960s to receive his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. His passion for science blossomed while working at a quarantine station in southeastern Pennsylvania, where he befriended the African-American sheep farmer who had brought his entire herd to the United States in search of grazing land.
As a child, Dr. Zaki had seen hauntingly human-like pictures of birds and bats scattered about in a Moroccan cave, and his “fascination with nature began in this encounter,” according to his professional website.
After receiving his medical degree, Dr. Zaki spent four years at the Cairo Armed Forces Medical College, where he focused on infectious diseases and tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue and cholera.
After his studies were completed, Dr. Zaki returned to Philadelphia to work for a while at a hospital and a medical research center. He then spent a decade at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, a research and education center based at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Zaki started working at the Mayo Clinic in 1977, where he taught infectious disease at the medical school and did research on AIDS and HIV-AIDS.
Among his other works, Dr. Zaki published hundreds of scholarly articles and trained hundreds of other health-care professionals and graduate students.
His experiences during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 led him to develop an appreciation for human rights and social justice. During the reign of the shah, Dr. Zaki and many of his friends were held in prisons during the regime’s murderous crackdown on the country’s students.
Those experiences informed his work on infectious diseases, including HIV-AIDS, as well as his theories of managing infectious outbreaks and reducing their severity.
In 2012, Dr. Zaki received a $5 million award from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the evolution of dysentery, an infectious disease that is typically caused by bacteria, and which is spread through contaminated food or water and ingested by ingestion.
The Johns Hopkins University health professor had previously received a coveted $10 million award from the same NIH agency.
In 1986, Dr. Zaki received a Life Membership Award from the National Academy of Sciences, a prestigious honor given by the group for their “commitment to advancing science by fostering excellent research.”
But what earned him the honor was his strong work ethic, including his time spent in labor camps and a kidnapping attempt.
“He was so bright and accomplished. He didn’t know the power of the information. In his own words, he knew all there was to know,” said his friend, Ira Karpowitz, a Brigham Young University professor and director of the Gordon Center for Science, Technology, and Society.
Dr. Zaki is survived by his wife, Mu’zamir, two daughters, a son, and his mother, Ghada. His son, Munir, is an Israeli activist who won the 2017 Sapir Prize, one of the highest honors in international science and technology awards, for his work as director of the Israeli environmental planning agency COGAT.
“I will not allow the hate, death and degradation that live in the face of the diminishment of Palestinians to rob me of my belief that peace exists,” Munir Zaki said during his acceptance speech.
Maurice Jones, a staff writer for Fox News, was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award for his coverage of the 2017 Atlanta Olympics.
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Fox News’ Matthew Dean and Randi Kaye contributed to this report.