hen Dr. Louis Z. Cooper was a clinician-researcher in infectious diseases at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in the early 1970s, his research revealed that not enough children were getting measles and rubella vaccinations.
"It looked like we were building up for two epidemics," says Dr. Cooper, now a professor of pediatrics at P&S. The Food and Drug Administration had approved the measles vaccine in 1964 and the rubella vaccine in 1969, but the illnesses were still not under control. Children were still being harmed by measles and pregnant women were bearing newborns with the deafness, blindness, and heart defects due to rubella infection.
To counter the potential epidemics, Dr. Cooper helped persuade state governments to mandate children be vaccinated against vaccine-preventable childhood diseases, such as measles and rubella, before starting school. Twenty years later, he helped create a federal entitlement that pays for all federally recommended vaccines for children who are not insured.
Today, as president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the 70-year-old Dr. Cooper says he is continuing his mission of children's health advocacy, a calling that began when he was a young physician-researcher. Dr. Cooper says his perseverance, research and clinical skills, sense of social justice, and 25 years as chairman of pediatrics at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan prepared him to take the helm of the largest medical organization in the United States dedicated to the physical, emotional, and social needs of children. Approximately 55,000 pediatricians are members.
His sense of social justice began as a child in Albany, Ga., when he observed racial inequities in the South. He believed becoming a doctor could help create a "sense of fairness." His tenacity became evident when he was a teen. Even though he was 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds, he insisted on playing for his high school football team in Akron, Ohio, where his family had moved. Later on, his scientific acumen as a clinician-investigator enabled him to provide data to legislators to back up changes in policy. Communication skills, essential for clinician-educators, allowed him to talk comfortably with anyone, politicians as well as parents. Finally, running a department honed his leadership skills.
Dr. Cooper graduated from Yale with a B.S. in 1954 and an M.D. in 1957. He was an Air Force internist between 1959 and 1961. After a three-year public health fellowship in Boston, New York University's School of Medicine recruited Dr. Cooper to come to Bellevue in 1964.
With his success at employing research to change public health policy about vaccinations, he next took on access to health care for children in the mid-1970s, working through the New York City Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He had just become a professor of pediatrics at P&S, in 1973, and director of the pediatrics service at Roosevelt Hospital the same year. Dr. Cooper noted how New York City's financial crisis was closing down public clinics that provided health care for poor children. As a result, sicker children were showing up at the hospital. With academy leadership, a coalition helped reduce the loss of precious child health resources in the city.
Dr. Cooper was named chairman of pediatrics at St. Luke's-Roosevelt in 1980, when the hospitals merged. He left in 1998 as emeritus chair. He remains a member of the P&S faculty and is a steering committee member of Columbia University's Institute for Child and Family Policy.
Throughout his career, he fought to protect children falling through the health care cracks. After many years of his and other lobbying efforts, in 1990, New York State began an insurance program for children, called Child Health Plus, to provide coverage for children ineligible for Medicaid. The program has since expanded, covering 3 million children nationwide, including 500,000 New York children. He is now trying to get more eligible children enrolled.
Over the years, he climbed the ranks of the New York chapters of the academy. When he was asked last year to run for president of the academy, he couldn't say no.
Part of his charge as president is to help improve the status of pediatricians. Caring for children, Dr. Cooper says, means advocating for their doctorspediatricians. Pediatricians are the lowest paid specialty and the reimbursement rates and number of programs for pediatric subspecialties also is decreasing. "This decline is a serious threat to the future of pediatric research and teaching, since it hits our academic departments too," Dr. Cooper says.
Caring for children also means reaching out to parents. As president of the academy, Dr. Cooper will continue his efforts to ensure that children have access to health care and are vaccinated. He also is pushing for universal newborn hearing screening because detection can lead to early intervention, which can improve the lives of hearing-impaired children.
Dr. Cooper says he has fought for children during his professional life out of a sense of fairness. "I saw what it took to raise my four children," Dr. Cooper says. "It only seemed right that all parents should have the same access to health care that I had for my children." As president, he says, he will persist in fighting for children, their parents, and their doctors.