Alan W. Cross, MD, dies at 67

Cross was known as a compassionate physician, a vocal public health advocate and an exemplary teacher.

Alan W. Cross, MD, dies at 67 click to enlarge Alan Cross, MD

Monday, Jan. 9, 2012

Alan Cross, MD, died peacefully on Thursday, January 5, 2012 at his home with family. Dr. Cross was a member of the faculty of the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine for more than thirty years, most recently as professor and vice chair of the Department of Social Medicine, professor of pediatrics, and professor of maternal and child health in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. From 1979-1989, he co-directed and then directed the Preventive Medicine Residency Program in the School of Medicine. He served as interim chair of the Department of Social Medicine from 2007 to 2009. He was also director of the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP, a CDC Prevention Research Center), serving for 12 years from 1992 to 2003.

Dr. Cross had a passion for medicine, service, health disparities research, education, and social justice. A pediatrician by training, he continued to serve as a primary care clinician throughout his career. He spent several years working with community clinics in Nairobi, Kenya and served on the board of directors for Carolina for Kibera, a student-run aimed at alleviating poverty in Kibera, for many years.

Throughout his tenure, Dr. Cross was honored by medical students, colleagues, and others. Most recently, he was selected by the student body to present the annual Whitehead Lecture on Aug. 17, 2011, one of the highest honors bestowed upon professors at UNC. That year, Dr. Cross also was presented with the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Faculty Award, in recognition of his compassion and empathy in the delivery of care. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Educators in 2010, an award that recognizes faculty who demonstrate sustained excellence in teaching and mentoring medical students for 10 years or more. In 2002, he was selected as a distinguished finalist for the AAMC Humanism in Medicine Award. He delivered the School of Medicine commencement address in 1984 (when the class of 1984 gave him “The Professor Award”), and again in 2009.

In his message to the medical community, William L. Roper, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, vice chancellor for medical affairs and chief executive officer of the UNC Health Care System, wrote, “Alan Cross has been a major part of the experience of a generation of medical students. As many of you know, he lived the last years of his life with a neurological disease, but living with the disease did not dampen his energy and enthusiasm for caring for patients and teaching medicine to medical students and fellow physicians. He will be remembered by many of us not just as a mentor and colleague, but as a trusted physician to our children and grandchildren.”

Tim Carey, MD, MPH, director of the UNC Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, said that Cross dealt with his disease “with what I can only describe as heroism,” continuing to teach students, medical residents, and faculty from his wheelchair.

While director of HPDP, Dr. Cross didn’t shy away from bold health promotion actions such as challenging the tobacco industry, and promoting condom distribution to youth. He was a leader in originating the concept that every child should have a medical home, a principle that has now been nationally adopted. His research interests included assessing the effectiveness of community-based interventions to improve infant health, testing methods for improving adolescent health through school and community interventions, and improving the delivery of preventive services to low-income populations. He also felt a strong connection with HPDP’s community partners, and attended nearly every Community Action Council meeting held during his tenure as director.

Alice Ammerman, DrPH, who succeeded Dr. Cross as director of HPDP in 2003, said he was an inspiration to many researchers. “In addition to being a very important mentor to me, Alan’s legacy with HPDP and the national Prevention Research Center (PRC) network is one of innovative, collaborative leadership; strong commitment to Community-Based Participatory Research and social justice; and dancing at the Community Action Coalition retreats,” she said.

Gail Henderson, PhD, chair of the Department of Social Medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, said, “Alan was a founding member of the department, and served it, the School, and the University as a clinician-educator and leader in many influential capacities. He took seriously the mandate that a clinician working in social medicine would take a broader view of the causes and consequences of illness and the physician’s role—in interactions with patients, in educating medical students and residents, and in the community. He was ahead of his time in many, many respects. He was a friend, colleague, and mentor to all of us in the department, and will be deeply missed.”

Des Runyan, MD, DrPH, former department chair and fellow pediatrician, said UNC lost a giant with Cross’s death. “Alan has been a role model for the rest of us as faculty and a thoughtful colleague,” said Runyan. “He helped me figure out how to live in the unique environments of social medicine and pediatrics at the same time. I will miss him as a sounding board, an advisor, a colleague, and a friend.”

“Alan’s many colleagues in the departments of social medicine, pediatrics, and public health, along with faculty involved with the School of Medicine curriculum, the Academy of Educators, which he founded, and an array of national collaborators in curriculum innovation and prevention research share a keen sense of loss and appreciation for Alan’s generosity and energy, even as his health failed,” said Sue Estroff, a colleague in the Department of Social Medicine. “Alan was a warm and supportive colleague and mentor, and a teacher who found syllabi everywhere—even in his illness,” said Nancy King, JD, Professor at Wake Forest School of Medicine and a longtime colleague of Dr. Cross’ at UNC.

“His teaching and practice exemplified the development of the doctor-patient relationship to promote and enhance the autonomy of patients. His vision of medical education was broad and deep, and his experience and enthusiasm were always energizing. In short, he was a model of the modern version of the old-fashioned doctor/teacher—and worked all his life to ensure that there would be more doctors like him. He is irreplaceable nonetheless.”

“As well as being a wonderful role model for students, Alan Cross was the consummate student advocate,” said Georgette Dent, MD, Associate Dean for Student Affairs. “At one point in time, he was the faculty advisor for half a dozen student organizations. He cared deeply about the professional development of students, both in terms of their academic success and in their potential as future leaders. His legacy will live on in the numerous medical careers that he helped to develop.”

"In the Pediatrics residency, and later in the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Alan was a passionate advocate of caring for communities and the science of caring for populations, long before these became part of the foundation of heath care reform and the ACO movement," said Warren Newton, MD, Vice Dean for Medical Education. "He was a man before his time, and one of the major architects of the strength of the University of North Carolina in the care of populations."

Dr. Cross earned a BA from Yale University and an MD from Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons.

He is survived by his wife, Mimi, four daughters, four sons-in-law and six grandchildren. Memorial service details will be posted on this website when they become available.

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Carolina for Kibera. A website has been set up by Alan’s colleagues at http://alancrossremembered.web.unc.edu/ to share memories of Dr. Cross, for anyone who would like to contribute.

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