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World leader in medicine chalks up his values to Muscatine upbringing
Dr. Jim Yong Kim, former Muscatine resident and co-founder of the Boston-based Partners In Health, an international medical charity, works with children in the African nation of Uganda. Kim, who spends a great deal of time traveling worldwide, said that living in Muscatine during the 1970s gave him the values of fairness, decency and justice he’s applied working for PIH./Contributed photo

MUSCATINE, Iowa - Dr. Jim Yong Kim has traveled around the world in a quest to provide life-saving medical care for the world’s poor.

But he credits the development of his values in fairness, decency and justice to his teenage years living in the Pearl City.

Kim, 43, along with Dr. Paul Farmer, are the co-founders of Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH), a national charity that coordinates various medical programs to combat disease and poor health care in some of the most impoverished communities in the world.

Farmer, through PIH, began international medical missions in Haiti in 1983, and since that time, the charity has expanded its programs to Russia, Peru, Mexico, Latin America and Africa as well as in Boston’s inner city.

Both Farmer and Kim were recently honored in U.S. News & World Report as part of its Oct. 31 “America’s Best Leaders” issue.

Road to Muscatine

In telephone and e-mail interviews from Boston, Kim said that his family moved to the United States from Seoul, South Korea, in 1964 when he was 5 years old.

“My dad was a dentist at a time when there weren’t many Asian dentists around,” he said.

The Kim family originally settled in Iowa at State Center, “a town of around 2,000,” but after a few years moved to Muscatine because Kim’s parents wanted to live in a larger town and Kim’s mother was finishing work on a doctorate at the nearby University of Iowa.

At the time of the Kims’ move in 1970, there was only one other Asian family living in Muscatine, Kim said.

“I think they owned the only Chinese restaurant in town,” Kim said, laughing.

Kim attended Muscatine High School, graduating in 1978. Kim was the school’s valedictorian and was also a good athlete, playing football and basketball.

“I’ve heard that your football team is really good these days, but at the time I played quarterback for the Muskies in 1975, we had the longest losing streak in the nation,” he chuckled.

There were several things that made Muscatine special, Kim recalled.

“The people living there have always been decent, friendly and warm,” he said. “That fairness and decency have been a big part of my interest in working with the poor.”

Kim also credits the Stanley Foundation’s Values Institute during the 1970s for sponsoring lectures with speakers such as Harvard Medical School psychologist Robert Coles and anti-Vietnam War activist William Sloane Coffin n men who challenged Kim as a teenager to expand his horizons beyond Iowa.

“They (the lectures) made me want to get out and see the world n to pursue the values I had learned,” said Kim.

With that in mind, Kim originally started his undergraduate degree program at the University of Iowa, but at the urging of friends, soon transferred to Brown University in Providence, R.I.

The PIH mission

After graduating from the Ivy League institution, Kim received his medical degree as well as a doctorate in medical anthropology from Harvard University.

According to the U.S. News article, Kim then focused his energy in PIH to help Farmer design better treatment protocols as well as lobbying U.S. and foreign pharmaceutical companies for cheaper and more effective medicines.

In an e-mail, Kim wrote about his role in PIH.

“As for what we are trying to do, the mission is fairly clear. The basic idea is that we believe very strongly that all people in the world deserve excellent health care, at a minimum.

“And we believe that the world has more than enough resources to be able to provide it.”

Continuing, Kim wrote that his religious background has also been an important influence in PIH.

“Paul and I are both Christians, but our commitments and work go well beyond our faith,” he wrote. “We have worked very hard to break through what we feel are incorrect arguments about what can and can’t be done in poor countries in terms of the delivery of health care.”

Over the years, PIH’s medical philosophy has gathered new adherents, according to Kim.

“We have had quite a bit of success in doing these things and because my close friend [Dr. Lee Jong-wook] became Director-General of the World Health Organization, I have been able to take these ideas to a much greater audience. I think we’ve been successful,” Kim wrote.

As for the future of PIH and its medical treatment programs, Kim is optimistic.

“We hope that Partners In Health will be able to continue to influence people’s fundamental notions of what we all can and should do to provide essential services to those who suffer unjustly and unnecessarily,” he wrote.

“The world has really come around in embracing the notion of doing just that. There is so much more money around now than before for things like HIV treatment for poor people that we have a chance to make some great gains. We will work actively to do just that in the future.”

Reunion plans in 2008

Although Kim has not visited Muscatine in a few years, he wrote that he still has many friends in the area.

Kim’s father, Nhak Hee Kim, died in 1987, but his mother, Oaksook, lives in Los Angeles near Kim’s brother, Bill, who is also a physician.

Kim wrote that a sister, Heidi, lives in Maine with her husband. As for Kim himself, he is married with a 5-year-old son, Thomas.

Kim wrote that he hopes to bring his family to the Muscatine for his 30th high school reunion in 2008.

“I have been planning to bring my son there so that he can know where his old man grew up, but was thinking that we would go later, when he might be more aware and able to understand,” he said.

Contact Stephen Byrd at: 563-263-2331 Ext. 320 or


Partners In Health Web site

U.S. News and World Report profile

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