“We’ve had the privilege of working in a field that can change people’s lives dramatically. So we’ve been very fortunate to be part of that research. Not many people get the opportunity to impact so profoundly.”
- Dr. Glenda Gray,
It’s six o’clock in the evening, the time when Glenda Gray, PHRU’s Executive Director, switches off her BlackBerry® for three hours and turns her attention to her husband and three children. But she admits, with a laugh, that between helping the kids with homework and her husband with dinner, “Sometimes I might sneak a look.” At nine, the evening conference calls begin with partners in the US and preparation for the next day’s work. “Then its wake up in the morning and try to clear my emails from the night before, make the lunch for the kids for school, wake them all up and then there will be two cars that go off in different directions with kids.”
Even as a young girl, Gray knew she wanted to be a doctor. “I grew up in a big, poor family and always, from the time I was six, I wanted to become a doctor, to help people.” One of six children, Gray grew up in a mining town outside of Johannesburg. “I guess my family thought it was a fantasy that I would eventually grow out of because it’s hard to get into medical school if you’re living in a town like that. Out of the 200 kids in your Matric class, a handful got into university. One or two people become doctors every ten years.” When Gray got the letter confirming her acceptance to medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand, her mother took out loans to support her studies.
At university, Gray became involved in anti-apartheid activism. Joining the clandestine detainee support committee, she helped to document the political detainees coming out of prison. Later, she joined the health workers association, helping to mobilize healthcare workers and organize strikes to desegregate South Africa’s hospitals.
As a seasoned activist and newly certified doctor, Gray never intended to become a researcher. “I saw myself as a pediatrician. I was going to run a ward and look after sick babies. I saw myself as a clinician, never as a researcher.” That was before she embarked on her first research study to test whether HIV-positive women in resource-poor settings could safely formula feed their babies. “I saw how research, how evidence can change perceptions. How evidence can change practice. How evidence can make you think of something in a different way. How evidence can show that women in Soweto can formula feed their babies and should be allowed to be given that choice. And so that taught me the power of research. It’s a powerful activist tool and you can use it to achieve your objectives if you’re interested in public health and changing the lives of women and children. And so I became addicted to research.”
From that first study and the subsequent research and funding that followed, PHRU was born. Over the next several years Dr. Gray and her then co-director James McIntyre would grow PHRU into a world-class research facility, conducting countless clinical trials investigating adult and paediatric HIV treatments, co-infections such as tuberculosis and novel HIV prevention methods. But at every step along the way, the activist spirit that Gray originally brought to the work was apparent. “We have lobbied, based on the results of research, for practice and policy change.”
For Dr. Gray, the work is personal. When she reflects on the progress PHRU has made and the first paediatric patients the unit treated, she refers to them, not as her patients, but as her kids. “My oldest children are seventeen and my oldest adolescent that survived just passed her first year at university in journalism. So we’ve seen the impossible and it’s very beautiful. In those early days, there were no drugs and you could put only a few people on treatment trials. Kids were always sick. Parents were sick. Everyone was dying. It was just a horrible time and then we thought, ‘We’ve got to get involved in prevention’. So we started getting involved in HIV vaccine research. Today, you walk into our clinic and everyone is healthy. When kids are HIV infected now, we can become outraged. Before it was a common event. And now we’re at a stage where we can say, this isn’t fair. Why did this child get infected? And investigate why.”
Associate Professor of Paediatrics, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
Director, HIV Vaccine Trials Network Africa Programs.
Member, Academy of Sciences in South Africa
MD, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
FCPaeds (SA), Paediatrics and Child Health, College of Medicine, South Africa
Awards & Honors
Fogarty Fellowship, Clinical Epidemiology
Femina “Woman of the Nineties” Award
International Association of Physicians Against AIDS’ “Hero of Medicine”
Nelson Mandela Health and Human Rights Award (awarded together with James McIntyre)
N’Galy-Mann Lectureship (awarded together with James McIntyre)