Melinda Sue Meade

Melinda Meade was born in 1945 in New York City and grew up and went to school and college on Long Island. She was valedictorian of her Hicksville High School (1963) and Hofstra University (1966) classes. Melinda planned to teach history, but then changed her life by volunteering for the Peace Corps instead of going to graduate school in history. She taught English for two years in a small town in northeastern Thailand, six hours by elephant from the railhead in the provincial capital. As Melinda put it, the village did not want a male volunteer, and there was concern about sending a young woman into the jungle of Thailand in the 1960s, but the Peace Corps knew Melinda could do the job. In Thailand she discovered the complexities of development and learned to view the world through the lived experiences of another culture. She also made lifelong friends, one of her dearest friends, Phoungphet Meesawat, was her assistant in the village. Melinda and Phoungphet visited one another several times in Thailand and the States, remaining in close contact over the decades first via letters and then via email.

Following the Peace Corps, Melinda went to graduate school, first at Michigan State University (MA 1970) and then at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii (PhD 1974). She chose geography, a field to which she would dedicate her life; geography allowed her to combine her interests in Asia, population change, and health promotion and disease ecology. Her dissertation research involved two years of fieldwork on land development/population resettlement schemes in Malaysia, which explored the dimensions of population movement and how such movement affected disease ecologies. This was Dr. Meade’s constant interest, how people move through environments and thus move through disease ecologies. Returning from field work in Malaysia, she took a tramp steamer up through Japan. Her academic career spanned departments of geography at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Georgia, and finally the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) from 1976 until her retirement in 2010. She studied topics as diverse as the eradication of malaria in the United States, the enigma of cardiovascular disease and stroke in the coastal plain of the southeast as expressed in the city of Savannah, Georgia, and the implications of the growth of megacities and the globalization of population movement for the diffusion of diseases and the emergence of a different state of disease and health ecology in the urban population of the future. Melinda was a trailblazer for women academics. She traveled widely and conducted international research in a time when most young women simply didn’t. Melinda was an active member of the generation that shattered ill-conceived beliefs and expectations about a woman’s place in academia. Her hard work and sacrifice made it possible for generations of young women to have fulfilling and successful academic careers.

Professor Meade taught courses from first year undergraduate to doctoral levels on issues of changing population dynamics and structure, agricultural modernization, urbanization, and globalization in the developing world; on population geography, medical geography, disease ecology, the world’s food supply; and on Tropical Asia. She excited students with discussions of mobility and exposure and why both people and places are important for human health. She spoke of the day in 1974 when the world’s population reached 4 billion, and how there was fear about rampant famine due to overpopulation, but how Esther Boserup’s predictions of necessity producing innovation and Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution averted those dire forecasts. Dr. Meade won the Spencer and Tanner Award for excellence in inspirational undergraduate teaching from UNC, and was inducted into the UNC Academy of Distinguished Teaching Scholars in 2000. Melinda is best known, particularly to undergraduates, as the author of the definitive textbook in the field of medical geography. Working with a succession of co-authors, she has opened the world of population and health to students far beyond the walls of UNC.

Over her many years as the departmental population and medical geographer, Melinda oversaw the training of 4 MA and 7 PhD students. She also informally mentored many other students, particularly women scholars. Melinda was a well-respected and well-loved mentor. Her intellect and compassion were always on hand when working through research or contemplating life as a graduate student. She gave unselfishly of her time to her graduate students and approached student research with an enthusiasm and excitement that was contagious. She encouraged people to think deeply and to strive not just to “do research” on a population, but to truly understand and appreciate the different ways in which diverse populations live their lives. Melinda engaged her students in scholarly dialogue which demanded a maturity of thinking which naturally led to intellectual development. She read voraciously and widely. She was also stubborn and brutally honest. Her academic legacy is a far reaching network of scholars who focus on people and places and health outcomes.

She loved gardening, growing fabulously beautiful roses, and her dogs, including Jenny, who misses Melinda very much. A beautiful video tribute to Melinda’s life entitled “ATLAS HANDS” can be watched at