Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Deborah Birx ’76

Contributing writer: Marith Anderson ’22

Before Houghton College graduate Dr. Deborah Birx 76 rose to prominence on the national stage as the White House coronavirus response coordinator, she was already a world-renowned medical expert and leader in the field of HIV/AIDS. As the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Birx oversees the implementation of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the largest commitment in history by any nation to combat a single disease, as well as all U.S. Government engagement with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. She also serves as the U.S. Special Representative for Global Health Diplomacy.

Birx began her college career at Houghton with a double major in chemistry and math. Houghton College President Dr. Shirley Mullen, also a member of the class of 76, remembers how the future coronavirus response coordinator was well known around campus for her dedication to her studies. “She and I were both very serious studentsshe in the sciences and I in the humanities. Our paths, thus, did not cross too much,” Mullen explains. “I did know her and knew of her reputation as an excellent student. She was involved in research early ondoing major honors work with Dr. Larry Christensen. It was this generation of faculty and students who laid the foundation for the Summer Research Institute that is part of Houghton today. With the help and support of Houghton faculty, Birx changed her career path to pre-med and went on to study at Penn State Hershey School of Medicine. 

During her career, which spans four decades, Birx says she only had to apply for a job once. Her initial interest in the medical field led her to work in internal medicine, clinical immunology and infectious diseases. These paths allowed her to best understand the relationship between virus and host, the kind of knowledge needed to combat global pandemics like HIV/AIDS and, now, COVID-19. 

Months before Dr. Birx visited our homes each night through televised updates related to coronavirus (and before social media accounts were created to focus entirely on her scarves!), Birx was slated to be on campus as the Commencement speaker for the Class of 2020. By March, most of the nation was sheltering in place, and it was clear that Commencement could not take place in person—so Dr. Birx made the time in her schedule to address her alma mater virtually. “It was a memorable privilege—and appropriate coincidencefor our graduates from the Class of 2020 to hear during their virtual Commencement from Dr. Deborah Birx in this very moment when she is so visibly using her gifts to address the global pandemic that has created such havoc in their personal lives—as well as in the entire world,” remarked Mullen in a press release leading up to the early May event. “Dr. Birx’s entire professional journey speaks to the Houghton ideal of the ‘scholar-servant—a person whose abilities and accomplishments are dedicated, not to self-aggrandizement, but to the service of others.” 

Dr. Birx addressing the Houghton College graduating class of 2020

Retired chemistry professor Dr. Irmgard Howard remembers having Birx as a student in her biochemistry class (She had a photographic memory!”) and has watched in delight as her former student has made a significant difference over the years in the field of public health. “What I admire most about Deborah Birx is her adaptability,” Howard comments. “She has been able to adapt to every environment using all the skills she’s learned along the way. She is flexible and able to adapt, and she still looks good on TV!”