Obama’s World Bank Pick, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Links Global Health and Economic Development

Jim Yong Kim would become the first doctor to lead the World Bank.

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Barack Obama (R) makes a point about Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim (L) as he introduces him as his nominee to be the next president of the World Bank, during an announcement in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, March 23, 2012.

President’s Obama’s surprise choice to lead the World Bank, Dartmouth President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, is a widely respected figure with decades of experience working to tackle some of the world’s most intractable problems in public health. Obama’s nomination of Kim, who would be the first doctor to lead the World Bank, underscores the critical link between global medicine and economic development.

A physician and anthropologist, Kim, 52, became the first Asian-American to lead an Ivy League institution when he was named president of Dartmouth in 2009. Kim, who received a MacArthur fellowship in 2003, is best known as a co-founder of Partners in Health, an innovative health non-profit known for its focus on preventive care and its reliance on hiring local care-givers to improve health in low-income communities around the world.

Partners in Health now employs some 14,000 workers around the world, and the organization played an important role addressing the health crisis that unfolded in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake in 2010. Dr. Paul Farmer, who co-founded Partners in Health with Kim, praised his nomination in a statement.

“Jim Yong Kim is an inspired nomination for the presidency of the World Bank,” Farmer said. “Having had the good fortune to train with Jim at Harvard, and to see him work in settings from inner-city Boston to the slums of Peru, from Haiti to Rwanda to the prisons of Siberia, I know that for three decades Jim has committed himself to breaking the cycle of poverty and disease.”

(More: The 2006 TIME 100: Jim Yong Kim)

From 2004 to 2006, Kim was director of the Department of HIV/AIDS at the World Health Organization, where he pushed for an ambitious program to distribute life-saving anti-HIV drugs to patients in developing countries. Launched in 2003, he called it 3×5, to represent the target of providing 3 million HIV positive people with AIDS treatment by the end of 2005.

The effort ended up falling short of its goal, but by the end of 2005, 1 million new people were taking anti-HIV medications, and Kim estimated that the program would hit its 3 million target in another six months. (It would take another year.) Still, the program was a milestone.

“We’ve never had a treatment program on this scale for a chronic disease like HIV-AIDS,” Kim told TIME at the time. “Missing by a matter of months is not bad. What we’re seeing is a historically significant scale up of a chronic disease treatment program, and we’ve shown it’s feasible and affordable. It’s evidence that the availability of treatment can lead to a dramatic upsurge in counseling and services too.”

Kim, who would replace outgoing World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick, still has to be formally selected by the institution’s board of directors. But Obama’s nomination instantly makes him the odds-on favorite for the post. Kim’s nomination was greeted warmly by Columbia professor Jeffrey D. Sachs, who had lobbied to be nominated for the post. “Jim Kim is a superb nominee for [World Bank],” Sachs wrote on Twitter. “I support him 100%. I thank all who supported me and know they’ll be very pleased with today’s news.”

In 2006, Kim was named to the TIME 100 list of people “whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.” Here’s an excerpt from his citation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder, who wrote about Kim’s work with Partners in Health in his 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”:

Ten years ago, Kim was working in the slums of Lima, Peru, with a team of doctors from the charity Partners in Health, based in Cambridge, Mass. They encountered an epidemic of drug-resistant TB. Experts had long agreed that it was impossible to treat this disease in such a setting. Kim and his colleagues proved the experts wrong. Moreover, Kim led a campaign that forced down the prices of the necessary drugs about 90%. Since then, 36 countries have adopted the protocols Kim and his colleagues devised.

“If we can do this with drug-resistant TB, why not with AIDS?” Kim said to me when I first met him. In wealthy countries, AIDS has become a treatable disease. But in what is euphemistically called the developing world, millions still die from it every year, and only 300,000 were being treated as of 2003. Working for the World Health Organization, Kim created a campaign to increase the number treated to 3 million people by 2005. He called the effort 3 by 5. An impossible goal, many experts felt, and they were right. But by 2005, more than 1 million new patients were being treated, and the total in Africa had increased eightfold. In the high councils of international health, the 3 by 5 campaign was, as Kim put it, “like a bowling ball thrown into a chess match.” Officials who two years ago were arguing against universal treatment for AIDS now say they were in favor of it all the time.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kim was 5 when his family emigrated to Muscatine, Iowa, where they were the only Asian family, according to an excellent Forbes profile of Kim from last November. His father taught dentistry at the University of Iowa, while his mother studied Confucius and received her Ph.D. in Chinese philosophy. An accomplished student-athlete, Kim was valedictorian of his high-school class at Muscatine High School, and played quarterback on the football team and point guard on the basketball team.

After enrolling in the University of Iowa, Kim transferred to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1982. Kim earned an M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1991, and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard in 1993. Prior to joining Dartmouth, Kim was a professor at Harvard Medical School, where he served as chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, and Harvard School of Public Health, where he was director of the François Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights.

Kim and his wife Younsook Lim, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, have two children.

According to Kim’s official Dartmouth biography, he frequently cites former Dartmouth President John Sloan Dickey, who told students in 1946: “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”

Additional reporting by Alice Park.