Ishpeming native leaves international legacy

by Suzan Travis-Robyns

Editor’s Note: The following article is compiled from written international tributes, a brief statement Mike Koenig wrote at his mother’s request shortly before his death, and an interview with Harry and Debbie Koenig.

Mike Koenig grew up in a small mining community in the Upper Peninsula and went on to conduct ground-breaking research that brought a global focus to women’s reproductive health, domestic violence and family planning in the Third World. He coauthored three books, fourteen chapters, and fifty-six articles published in highly regarded scientific journals, while mentoring a new generation of scholars, being married to the same woman for twenty-five years, raising two children and being at the center of an exciting social circle that nourished the scientific efforts—and the spirits—of a group of friends who spanned the continents.
0907fea1The scientific community working on population, family and reproductive health mourned his death to cancer in January of this year. An eminent professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, his university received more than 200 e-mails from residents of Third World countries commemorating his life.
Koenig’s work and vision is less well-known in his native Ishpeming than in some of the poorest and most remote regions on earth.
Koenig graduated from Ishpeming High School in 1970. He grew up in a loving Jewish family that valued education, art and culture, with a fraternal twin Steven and sister Karen.
“They were almost triplets,” his mother Debbie said. “Their sister was only sixteen months younger.”
Steven is an ophthalmologist specializing in corneal surgery in Milwaukee. His sister Karen Zwecker is an attorney in Florida.
His father Harry was an ophthalmologist, while mother Debbie managed her husband’s office from home for a while and become a freelance writer after her daughter graduated from college.
From the beginning of his life, Koenig loved people and sought to help them.
“From the time Michael was a little kid, he would give you the shirt off his back,” his father said. “We always kept the house stocked with popsicles.”
“Because he used to bring the neighborhood in,” his mother added.
0907fea2A summer Koenig and his twin spent in Ecuador when they were fourteen set him on his life’s path. The twins were invited to Ecuador by their mother’s cousin, who worked in the Foreign Service. They spent every summer until they finished their bachelor’s degrees in a Spanish-speaking country. Koenig studied for a semester each at the University of Madrid and the University of Mexico.
Koenig earned a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in New York in 1974, a master’s degree in sociology in 1976 and a doctorate in population planning in 1981, both from the University of Michigan.
He met his future wife Gillian Foo at the University of Michigan. A native of Malaysia, Foo also earned her doctorate in population planning.
Koenig explored the issue of decision-making regarding family size from the perspective of rural women in India for his dissertation. This included four months spent in India.
“It was here that I developed my passion for work in developing countries,” he said later.
As a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, he traveled to Bangladesh and began a career focused on reproductive health and rights for the most disadvantaged women in the world’s poorest countries.
In the 1980s, he worked for six and a half years for the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR, B) and the Population Council. In this capacity, he managed a staff of 200 and directed research on health and population issues. He worked to make family planning and health services more understandable and acceptable to rural populations.
Koenig described Bangladesh as “a microcosm of the problem of population in developing countries—a country the size of Wisconsin, it contained 130 million people when I was there, and was still growing rapidly.”
It was complicated, multi-faceted work that required keeping Bangladeshi and USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) management cultures from colliding, and withstanding pressure to bias the research in one direction or the other.
Due in part to this work, Bangladesh now represents a success story among poor developing countries for reducing the rate of population growth.
Koenig then served for seven and a half years as the program officer for the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, where he was responsible for developing the foundation’s reproductive health program in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Koenig determined how Ford Foundation money should be spent in these countries. His duties combined research, field intervention activities and policy formulation. He also worked to develop India’s HIV/AIDS prevention program. Research in South African high schools aimed at reducing the risk of HIV/AIDS through the use of mobile clinics later became one of his major projects.
In 1998, he and his wife decided to return to the United States “to ground our children in their culture,” he said. Koenig joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health, where he was later promoted to professor.
His career focused on the factors that lead to high mortality rates for pregnant women and women during childbirth in Third World countries and what can be done to prevent these deaths.
A second major research focus was domestic violence in India, Bangladesh and Uganda.
“It was Mike’s work that put gender and sexual violence on the global radar screen,” said his department chairman Dr. Robert William Blum. “His reputation is huge.”
Koenig was diagnosed with a duodenal tumor in 2006, and a brain tumor one year later. But he continued working until ten days before his death.
He coauthored six articles in 2006, two in 2007, an article and a book, Reproductive Health in India, in 2008.
“In the last months of his life, students came to his house,” his father said. “He couldn’t make it to the office any longer.”
Koenig underwent two major and several smaller surgeries and radiation and chemotherapy after his initial cancer diagnosis. His goal was to survive through 2008. That marked a decade of service to Johns Hopkins University and ensured his family insurance coverage.
During his career, the senior Koenigs visited their son and his family in India.
“We were standing on a railroad platform,” Harry said. “And I saw a little kid scrounging plastic bottles and cans.”
Having earned a medical degree, Harry could tell from the boy’s peculiar red hair and grayish skin color that he suffered from an amino acid deficiency that keeps pigment from forming. The condition indicated to the elder Koenig that the boy had an amino acid deficiency in his diet. He pointed the boy out to his son.
Mike Koenig made no verbal reply but went over to a street vendor, purchased a meal and took it to the bewildered boy.
Harry also accompanied his son to Nepal, where they visited family planning clinics in isolated areas. They climbed 4,000 feet to a little grouping of homes quite isolated from the area below.
“We met a woman who was twenty-nine who had nine children,” Harry said. “Through an interpreter, she asked, ‘How will I feed all these kids?’ This is really what motivated his work. How are you going to feed all these kids? How are you going to make their lives meaningful?”
After witnessing lepers in India begging as the Koenig vehicle moved through the streets, Debbie asked her son, “How can you live here and face this? It’s such an overwhelming situation.”
“He felt he was making a difference,” she said.
And what a difference he made.
Koenig’s scientific research was not limited to an academic audience. It improved the lives of millions of the world’s most vulnerable citizens. His work on domestic violence is awakening a focus on the effect of intimate partner violence on the health of women and children.
Koenig’s life always was one of sharing. Whether working with others to design research projects and publishing the results, sharing family life with his wife and children, or making elaborate gourmet dinners for his multitude of friends, he surrounded himself with people, constantly seeking to determine their needs and meet them.
He had a dry, incisive wit that picked away at the absurdities of life.
Long-time friend and physician Michael Bennish recalled when the pair were trekking in Nepal, Bennish accidentally laid out their lunch on a rock that had dung on it. Bennish still contends the dung was not human. “He (Koenig) would make some sly dig about the lack of infection control training for ID physicians, and I could expect some recurring witticism about it at least semi-annually.”
Koenig was passionately committed to reproductive rights.
“Michael was convinced that if contraception were available, fertility could be planned, and that social and health benefits for mothers, children and society would result,” Bennish said. Recalling their twenty-five-year friendship, Bennish recalled the…“many evenings at Michael and Gillian’s discussing not only the trials and tribulations of what we did, but the rewards and the meaning of it as well.”
Ngudup Palijor, who worked for Koenig in Bangladesh, described him as combining a fearsome intellect with an instinctive trait to help. Palijor felt out-of-place because of his upbringing in the backwaters of Micronesia. But he said Koenig and his wife Gillian Foo took him in almost as an extended family member.
“What followed, in the weeks and months in the hallways of the center, at Mike’s office, at Gillian and Mike’s residence over dinner was Mike’s ceaseless efforts to help me to survive and perhaps prevail at the exciting but very challenging vortex of the center, USAID and John Hopkins (University),” Palijor said. “He took me patiently through the center’s history, politics and personalities, important work at the center, USAID, its power, money, the good and ugly side of donors, operations research 101 over several months and even about life and times outside the center. He was my friend, my mentor, my adviser, my guru and my brother in whom I can confide my fears and joys in equal parts.”
Vincent Fauveau, a French physician, met Koenig at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1980s when Fauveau was an eager-to-learn student pursuing a master’s degree in public health. They later worked together in Bangladesh.
“I quickly perceived Mike on the one hand as a rigorous scientist, always in search of perfection, tirelessly testing hypotheses and polishing his conclusions, on the other hand as a remarkable mentor, always keen to explain and teach, in the complex areas of reproductive health and record-keeping systems,” Fauveau said. “But what was most striking about Mike was his kindness, his ability to make people comfortable, both Bangladeshi and Westerners, and the number of his friends. How many times were we invited at your home in Dhaka (Bangladesh)? …How many new people have we met thanks to both (Koenig and Foo) of you?”
Kanta Jamil also met Koenig at Johns Hopkins University, when she was starting a doctorate and Koenig had a postdoctoral fellowship.
“Although we hardly lived in the same city for more than four years, and had some years with little communication with each other, it did not create any distance between us when we met or talked,” Jamil said. “The bond of our friendship was strong, heartfelt, genuine and cherished and the closeness took no time to come back whenever we connected. In my relationship with him, I not only found friendship, but I also discovered a brother who looked after me. Maybe that’s how he is—maybe he looks after everyone. I don’t know. But I always felt he looked after me.”
Henry Mosley, a professor in Koenig’s department, said Koenig’s choice to live and work in developing countries demonstrated his commitment to “putting science in the service of people.”
Koenig’s legacy includes a new generations of scholars that he carefully mentored, encouraged and assisted with the design of their research, who now work in reproductive health. He worked to get research topics and funding for his students, always putting their advancement above his own.
Md Shahidullah worked for Koenig in Bangladesh. As was Koenig’s custom whenever he encountered a promising individual, Koenig encouraged Shahidullah to pursue his Ph.D.
The day Shahidullah discussed his dissertation topic with Koenig is still vivid in his mind.
“Mike was very supportive of my work and proposed a smart and innovative way of tackling the issue,” he said.
When it became clear to Koenig that cancer would claim his life, he set up a scholarship fund with his own money to help doctoral students conduct international research for their dissertations.
One hundred thousand dollars needs to be raised before the fund can begin grant- ing scholarships.
“It keeps his work alive,” Harry said simply.
Donations to the the Michael Koenig Grant Program can be sent to:

Bloomberg School of Public Health
Ricky Fine
615 N. Wolfe Street
Room W1041
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, MD 21205


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