Dennis and Joan Gillings Distinguished Service Medal Citation

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

As a biostatistics professor in the School of Public Health, Dennis Gillings learned much of what he needed to know to found Quintiles Transnational, which grew from a clapboard house in Carrboro into one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical services companies. That history, a strong affinity with the school’s goals and aspirations and a desire to do what they can to address the world’s pressing public health challenges inspired Dennis and Joan Gillings to make a $50 million gift to the school last year.

Theirs is the largest single donation in the University’s history, and a major gift by any standards. Their generosity places the Gillings among the most beneficent donors in the country, ranked on one list just one notch below Oprah. It also gives the school an unprecedented opportunity – what Barbara Rimer, dean of the school, calls a transformative opportunity – to be, in her words “even better at who we are” and “better able to serve North Carolina and to solve big public health problems across North Carolina and around the world.”

Dennis and Joan have been generous to the University before – both in previous gifts, such as the one in 2006 that endowed the Dennis Gillings Professorship in Biostatistics, and in service. While Joan serves as the chair of the Board of Visitors of UNC-Wilmington, Dennis has served on the Board of Visitors here at Chapel Hill and is currently active on the Dean’s Advisory Council of the School of Public Health, the Graduate Education Advancement Board and the Board of Directors of the UNC Health Care System.

Their gift is rooted in their desire to help the School of Public Health meet global challenges such as obesity, SARS, Avian flu and shortages of safe drinking water as efficiently as possible. Combining academic strengths in discovery and training with business strengths in efficiency and finance enable those concerned with public health to do the most good with the resources available, Dennis has said. The couple’s gift provides the school – recognized for its strengths in a wide range of disciplines – with expanded means to do research, train students and find evidence-based solutions that will improve the health of North Carolinians and all of humanity.

Julie MacMillan, managing director of Carolina Public Health Solutions, a new initiative funded by the Gillings, calls the couple’s gift to the school “jet fuel” which will enable it scale up its endeavors, creating an even greater impact. Carolina Public Health Solutions serves as the umbrella for several undertakings. Gillings Innovation Laboratories will fund interdisciplinary projects aimed at solving important public health problems. Visiting professorships will provide Carolina faculty with working sabbaticals in organizations around the world and bring to Chapel Hill leaders who will share new perspectives and new ways of thinking. And the Gillings Prize for Public Health Impact will inspire solutions that make a real difference in global health.

It’s a remarkable effort, made possible by a remarkable pair. Joan, says Barbara Rimer, is “a woman who makes things happen.” Besides serving on university boards here and in England, she has worked to revive the Wrightsville Beach Museum and the opera house in Wilmington, to mention just a couple examples of her volunteer service. Unafraid to take on new challenges and the possessor, friends say, of a lot of emotional intelligence, she’s also a competitive deep sea fisher of some renown.

Dennis’ work with Quintiles is well-known, but what may be less known are his strengths as a teacher. He came to Carolina as an associate professor in biostatistics in 1971, shortly before he completed his doctorate in mathematics at the University of Exeter in his native England.

Statistics is not always the most scintillatingly taught subject, says Julie MacMillan, who took his linear models course years ago, but she found Dennis “an unbelievably good teacher,” clear and animated. “He had a way of connecting applications to the theory so we understood that the role of statistics was to help solve public health problems,” she said.

That was an attitude encouraged by the late Dr. Bernard Greenberg, chair of biostatistics and later dean of the UNC School of Public Health. And it was an approach that had young Professor Gillings get his students working on projects for other campus departments and  taking on consulting work for pharmaceutical companies that needed someone who could apply the latest methodologies to analyze their clinical trial data.

Dennis and his colleague Gary Koch ’68 incorporated Quintiles in 1982, but Dennis – by then as a full professor and director of its Biometric Consulting Laboratory – continued to teach at Carolina for another six years before the demands of the growing business pulled him away.

Dennis and Joan met at Carolina – to be more exact, in the biostatistics department, where Joan worked on the administrative staff. Not long ago they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, and it’s clear to everyone who knows them that they’re crazy about each other.

“They both have a very long-standing, affectionate relationship to the School of Public Health,” says Dean Rimer. “They’re both really committed to North Carolina and they’ve been very generous supporters of their communities in both Wilmington and Chapel Hill. Both of them have amazing energy and enthusiasm.”

In their honor, this fall the school will be renamed the Dennis and Joan Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Its namesakes, Dean Rimer says, are “remarkable people who make the world and our state so much better for their presence.”

The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Chancellor James Moeser, who is stepping down June 30 after eight years leading the University; Roger Perry ’71, chair of the Board of Trustees; Rusty Carter ’71, secretary of the Board of Trustees; and Dennis and Joan Gillings, who in 2007 donated $50 million to the School of Public Health in addition to their previous service.

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