Global health professor and AIDS activist dies at 49

Gilbert Kombe, a global health professor and international leader in the fight against AIDS, died Nov. 6. He was 49.

His wife, Karin Theophile Kombe, said the cause of death was a cerebral stroke.

Kombe received his master’s degree in public health from GW in the 1990s, spending his nights in the classroom and his days working on public health issues that affect D.C., Eastern Europe and Africa.

“We already miss his presence, his gentle and good heart, his deep and abiding respect for each person he encountered,” School of Public Health and Health Services Interim Dean Josef Reum said.

After graduating from GW, Kombe took an associate professor position in the SPHHS global health program, where colleagues say he quickly gained attention for his involvement with the AIDS crisis sweeping the District at the time.

“Dr. Kombe was widely admired and appreciated by colleagues and students for his unassuming manner, his warmth, his knowledge of global health issues, and his commitment to enhancing the health of the poor,” said Dr. Richard Skolnik, a lecturer in global health. “He enriched the lives of students and faculty with his broad perspective on health and his ability to bring to the classroom first-hand experiences from working in a large number of countries on the most critical health challenges.”

A native of Zambia, Kombe spent much of his life working to improve health systems in Africa, specializing in HIV/AIDS prevention.

Before moving to D.C., Kombe got his medical degree from Tongji Medical University in China, returning to Zambia to work at the Kitwe Central Hospital.

In his native country, he planned the governmental response to the cholera epidemic – an acute, infectious disease – sparking his public health career.

In 2001, Kombe joined Abt Associations Inc., a multi-million dollar company working in more than 30 countries to develop health care systems for HIV/AIDS.

“Gilbert was important to us professionally and personally and had a great impact throughout the world as a clinician, a professor, a project leader, a mentor, and a friend,” said Kathleen Flanagan, president and CEO of Abt Associates. “His colleagues describe him as larger than life, one who could juggle multiple professional commitments but always putting his family first. Despite all of the demands on his time, he personally touched so many of us.”

His wife, his two children and relatives in Zambia survive him.

“Thinking back on his relationship with [The] George Washington University, he had a marvelous experience there as a student,” Karin said. “Even after he went into the private sector, he insisted on being an adjunct faculty member for years because he loved that intellectual community and loved the students.”

Kombe is the third professor to pass away this month. Geology professor and deputy director of the University Honors Program George Stephens died Nov. 2 and Gene Cohen, professor and director of GW’s Center on Aging, Health and Humanities, died Nov. 7.

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