Miriam Harriet Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC, staunch crusader for the health of women and infants and longtime advocate for the health benefits of breastfeeding, passed away during the early morning hours of Aug. 13 after a courageous battle with cancer.
From 2006 to 2016, she was Professor of the Practice of maternal and child health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and founding director of the Gillings School’s Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute (CGBI).
Dr. Labbok enjoyed an illustrious career in academics and in national and international government agency service. After earning Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health degrees at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, in New Orleans, she worked as a medical officer for five years with the U.S. Agency for International Development, in Washington, D.C.
From 1981 to 1987, she served on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Hygiene and Public Health. At Georgetown University, from 1987 to 1996, she was a faculty member in obstetrics and gynecology, director of the breastfeeding and maternal and child health division in the Institute for Reproductive Health, and director of the World Health Organization’s Collaborating Center on Breastfeeding.
Prior to coming to UNC, she was chief of the nutrition and maternal/infant health division in the global bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development (1996-2001) and senior adviser for infant and young child feeding and care at UNICEF (2001-2005).
Dr. Labbok was recruited as the founding director of the Gillings School’s Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute. An anonymous donor’s generous gift established the center in 2006 with an intent to advance global research about the health benefits of breastfeeding and to educate women and families about the value of breastfeeding for infants and young children.
In the months preceding her death, Dr. Labbok experienced an outpouring of gratitude and support, not only from friends and associates but also from organizations whose members prized her many contributions to the field of maternal and child health.
In July, she was honored with the International Lactation Consultant Association’s Journal of Human Lactation Patricia Martens Award for Excellence in Breastfeeding Research, the Crystal Rose award from Reaching Our Sisters Everywhere, an organization that aims to address breastfeeding disparities among people of color, and the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee’s Legacy Award.
“Miriam was a passionate scientist and advocate for the health of women and children around the globe,” said Carolyn Halpern, PhD, professor and chair of the Gillings School’s maternal and child health department. “The Department of Maternal and Child Health was extremely fortunate to have her as a member of our faculty. Her leadership in building the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute is only one of the many, many important legacies of her work.”
“Miriam was a tireless advocate for women’s, children’s and families’ health – here and the world over,” agreed Herbert Peterson, MD, W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of maternal and child health, and of obstetrics and gynecology in the UNC School of Medicine. “Her commitment to breastfeeding was unsurpassed, as was her devotion to those we serve. She will be deeply missed, but she leaves behind a powerful legacy that will have an impact on public health for years to come.”
Peterson expressed gratitude that Dr. Labbok was able to celebrate the recent 10th anniversary of CGBI, which he called “the world-class academic center that she founded and led and which has had such important impact on breastfeeding policies, programs and practices globally, nationally and locally.”
Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School, called Dr. Labbok “an incredible force for improving the health of mothers and babies.”
“She brought her passion for and knowledge about breastfeeding to our School and North Carolina, and she set in place the critical pieces of a strategy to improve the health of people in North Carolina and around the world,” Rimer said. “She was generous in sharing her wisdom and a very generous donor to the School. We will miss her.”