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Kumarasen Cooper

Kumarasen CooperDirector of Anatomic Pathology and Professor of Pathology, University of Vermont/Fletcher Allen Health Care, Burlington, Vermont, USA

Interview location: Hotel room in Boston, USA
Interview date: 21st November 2007

Key Themes: International Perspective, Legislation and Regulation, Life, death and the hereafter



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Growing up in apartheid South Africa Kum Cooper had to fight enormous odds – including the jailing of his eldest brother for political activism – to get his medical degree.  But after a Nuffield Fellowship at Oxford University, where he got his DPhil, he returned to his homeland to become one of the first professors of colour in the medical college at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.  These were extraordinary times: apartheid had collapsed and all South African institutions were transforming, but race remained a potent issue.  "You do not just flick the switch and say, 'Okay, yesterday was apartheid, today we have no prejudices.'  So I was dealing with people who clearly had prejudice," he says.   

In Africa they’re having difficulty getting basic stains; in the United States it’s whether you should do the super-stain or not.  You cannot say that these disparities don’t affect all of us – this is a global village.At ‘Wits’, and later in the US, Cooper set up and ran experimental pathology labs where research questions raised in the day-to-day care of patients could be explored by pathologists in his department.  His own special research interest throughout his career has been cervical cancer associated with the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, HPV, which was rife in South Africa when he began work on the wards as a newly qualified young doctor.

Cooper's personal experience of pathology in the developed as well as the developing world over more than two decades gives special weight to his concerns about the future of pathology.  “One of the challenges I faced and enjoyed and have immersed myself in [in the USA] is the governing of the quality of pathology – the regulation of it – which is good...  But I do believe there may be over-regulation, which could then destroy the classicism from which we came.”
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