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'Great Immigrant, Great American': Carlos del Rio’s remarkable contributions to medicine

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Catherine Morrow

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has selected Carlos del Rio, MD, as part of their “Great Immigrants, Great Americans” campaign, which celebrates the wide-ranging contributions of immigrants to American life.

Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant from Scotland, believed the infusion of talent that immigrants bring to our country keeps American society vibrant.

Originally from Mexico, del Rio was destined to become a leader in medicine.

For 200 years, the del Rio family has included a long list of physicians and pharmacists in Cuba, settling from Spain. Del Rio’s great-grandfather, Narciso del Rio, was a physician who worked in the eradication of yellow fever in Mexico, and his grandfather, Francisco del Rio, was a physician who studied medicine in Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century and practiced as a surgeon in San Antonio, Texas. 

When del Rio’s grandfather and his family lived in San Antonio, they experienced discrimination for their Mexican heritage.

“My grandfather, a practicing physician in Texas, was routinely introduced by his patients as ‘our Spanish doctor’,” del Rio says. “Because of the fear of discrimination, my dad did not learn to speak Spanish as a kid. The family spoke only English at home.”

The connections between justice, politics and medicine were strong in the del Rio household. Del Rio’s father, also Carlos del Rio, grew up in San Antonio and later went to law school, becoming a Supreme Court justice in Mexico at age 39, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1986. 

Del Rio went to medical school in Mexico and came to the United States after graduation, completing residencies in internal medicine and infectious diseases at Emory. In 1989, del Rio returned to Mexico and led the national AIDS program in Mexico from 1991 to 1996. In November of 1996 del Rio returned to Atlanta and joined Emory’s faculty. 

While leading the national AIDS program in Mexico, del Rio contributed to the current understanding of the epidemiology of HIV among men who have sex with men in Latin America and the impact that stigma has on late diagnosis and poor outcomes.  

Now a distinguished professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, executive associate dean for Emory at Grady and Professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at the Rollins School of Public Health, del Rio sees himself as both Mexican and American. He became an American citizen in 2007 due to his father’s emphasis on the importance of voting.

Like his father, del Rio loves both countries. “I sincerely wish there was better cooperation and collaboration across our countries,” says del Rio. “As a physician and leader, I take pride in my role of bridging the gap for my two countries.”

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