In this tribute to pioneering ID physician and researcher Adaora Adimora, MD, MPH, FIDSA, who died Jan. 1, 2024, two members of IDSA’s George W. Counts Interest Group, Michelle Floris-Moore, MD, MS, FIDSA, and Celia J. Maxwell, MD, FACP, FIDSA, reflect on her life and legacy. Dr. Adimora was a founding member of the group.
Ada, as we all affectionately called her, was poised and elegant with an unparalleled work ethic. She was a friend, colleague and collaborator, a disrupter of the status quo and a champion for good. She was also known to demand excellence, not suffering fools lightly. She had high expectations not only of those in her orbit but also of herself. But she was also much more than that. She was a woman deeply in love with her husband, as recounted by her friend Dennis Brooks, MD, who hosted an engagement celebration for the couple and recalled how Ada’s smile on that day was like “sunshine.” She was a mother to two magnificent young adults, Bria and Alegro, and a loving spouse. In many instances, she embodied equanimity under personal duress, especially with the loss of her late husband, Paul. She was an unflinching advocate for women, particularly women of color, and people with HIV infection.
Ada was a distinguished physician-scientist who made exceptional contributions to the fields of HIV epidemiology and clinical care. She obtained her MD from Yale and an MPH from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and did her internal medicine residency at Boston City Hospital followed by ID fellowship at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Ada started her ID career at Harlem Hospital, after which she moved to North Carolina where she first was assistant chief for science in the Communicable Disease Control Section at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources, and she subsequently joined the ID Division at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1989. She had a highly impactful career and at the time of her death was the Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Professor of Medicine and professor of epidemiology at UNC.
Dr. Adimora’s groundbreaking research illuminated factors underlying HIV transmission in the U.S., focusing on the impact of socio-structural determinants and racial inequities on the HIV epidemic among African Americans and women. She conducted pivotal studies on the influence of sexual network patterns on transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and the impact of poverty and incarceration on risk for HIV acquisition. In collaboration with colleagues at UNC’s Gillings School of Public Health, she conducted community-based research projects in partnership with Shaw University, a historically Black university in North Carolina, and faith-based organizations. As principal investigator of the UNC site for the MACS-WHIS Combined Cohort Study, a longstanding multicenter cohort of people with HIV and demographically similar people without HIV, Dr. Adimora made outstanding contributions to a broad portfolio of research including translational, clinical, behavioral, epidemiologic and health services studies. In addition to her many scientific accomplishments, she was an avid mentor to more than 26 trainees and junior faculty and was committed to creating a pathway for diverse clinician-scientists working on health disparities.
Each of those accomplishments is impressive, but what defined Ada’s career as a physician, scientist and leader was her courage. During a podcast in 2022, when asked by Giselle Corbie, MD, MSc, for a quote that guided her career, Ada said, “Do what you like, what’s important and what’s right.” Her work embodied that statement and had a major impact on the lives of people with HIV, on their communities and on her colleagues.
Ada was recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in her field and participated at the highest level in numerous advisory roles, including the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Advisory Council, the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, the International AIDS Society’s Governing Council, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents and the NIH COVID-19 Guidelines Panel. A member of the IDSA Board of Directors, she was a founding member of IDSA’s George W. Counts Interest Group, served as chair of the HIV Medicine Association from 2014 to 2015 and received the HIVMA Clinical Educator Award in 2020. That same year, at IDWeek, she delivered the Edward H. Kass Lecture, “All Policy Is Health Policy: Pathways to HIV (and COVID-19),” which remains highly relevant today. Revered by colleagues at UNC, Ada was the recipient of the Jefferson Award, the highest award given to UNC faculty, and at the time of her passing had been selected to give the Norma Berryhill Distinguished Lecture.
Her sense of commitment to social justice as well as extraordinary support of marginalized communities, women and African Americans with HIV disease is exemplified by some of the awards Ada received. This includes her selection in 2009 by “The Root” magazine (at the time published by a division of the Washington Post Company) as one of “The Root 100,” an honor that “recognizes established and emerging African American leaders who are making extraordinary contributions.” In 2010, she was also selected for the “POZ 100,” in which POZ magazine honored 100 of the “bravest, most dogged and downright effective AIDS fighters we know.” In recognition of her outstanding professional achievements and exceptional commitment to service, Dr. Adimora was appointed to the National Academy of Medicine in 2019, one of the highest honors in medicine.
The bright light that was Ada Adimora might be dimmed, but the spark that she ignited in our world will never be extinguished.