Jim Yong Kim made history in 2009 by becoming the first Asian American president of an Ivy League university as the 17th President of Dartmouth College. But his most impressive and inspiring achievements came long before in his two decades of work as a pioneering global healthcare activist.
Jim Yong Kim’s birth in Seoul, Korea in 1959 in itself was a remarkable achievement — for his parents. His father had crossed the DMZ alone from North Korea at the age of 17 and managed to establish himself as a dentist in the South. Kim’s mother too was a refugee in the years when Korea was a nation torn in half and ravaged by war. But her academic excellence had won her a scholarship to Tennessee’s Scarrit College.
Jim Yong was five when his family moved to Muscatine, Iowa. They were the lone Asian family in town. His father continued practicing dentistry while teaching at the University of Iowa where his mother earned her Ph.D. in philosophy. She may have helped instill her son’s lifelong passion for humanitarian endeavors by reading him passages from Martin Luther King’s speeches at bedtime.
At Muscatine High School Kim distinguished himself as class president, quarterback on the football team, point guard on the basketball team and valedictorian. He went on to graduate magna cum laude with an A.B. from Brown, an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University.
Kim believes that his very privileged upbringing led to his life’s work: “With all this privilege,” Kim and partner Paul Farmer asked themselves, “what was the nature of our responsibility in this world?” They answered the question by co-founding Partners In Health, a not-for-profit organization supporting health programs in poor communities worldwide. It has been one of the main organizations providing comprehensive health care to Haiti for over 20 years.
Kim recalls the first time he went to Haiti in 1988. “I had been to a lot of different places before, but I had never seen a place that was just so deeply poor,” he recalls.
Kim has also become a leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. In 2004 he was appointed director of the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organization. There he established the “3×5” initiative designed to put three million people in developing countries on AIDS treatment by the end of 2005. The goal was reached in 2007. Kim has also performed extensive research into effective and practical strategies for treating strains of TB resistant to standard drugs.
Kim’s global humanitarian work had earned him heady recognition long before he was picked to lead Dartmouth. In 2005 he was named one of America’s 25 Best Leaders by US News & World Report. In 2006 Time magazine included him among The 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Kim’s Dartmouth agenda is likely to be an extension of his longstanding philosophy as an educator. “Kim was the most inspirational instructor,” recalled a former student at Harvard. “He made you believe you could change the world.” Kim himself says that at Dartmouth he hopes to “train a group of young people who would leave the college energized and inspired and really thinking that there’s no problem they couldn’t tackle.”
Kim lives with wife Younsook Lim, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Boston, and his two sons. He regularly indulges his passion for basketball, volleyball, tennis and golf.