Geoffrey Cowley was dedicated to improving public understanding of health care. First as a journalist, then as a health official and advocate, and finally as a journalist again, he perfected the ability to explain complex medical issues and public policy to the widest possible audience.
Geoff was no fan of the populist end of health journalism. He had no patience for the medical scare story or the fad diet. He dismissed most of the political debate about health care reform as foolish and manipulative.
Instead he was one of the pioneers of smart, thoroughly reported, and gracefully written explanations of some of the biggest health stories of the last several decades: HIV/AIDS, neuroscience, poverty, and cancer.
An English graduate from Lewis and Clark College, and postgraduate from the University of Washington, Geoff started his journalism career at The Sciences magazine before moving to Newsweek. He worked at the news magazine for 18 years, through its heyday in the 1990s, covering medical science and health issues.
There he developed a key partnership with Harvard Medical School and managed blockbuster special editions on ambitious issues including ageing, and the medicine of the future. His 1997 work on early childhood language skills was at the heart of a White House conference hosted by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton.
His own feature writing was the epitome of the news magazine specialist: a fluid, finely paced prose that moved effortlessly from an accessible, colorful lead to a broad, sophisticated billboard that summarized why the reader needed to spend the time with his story.
Anyone who spent time with his stories came out the better for it. His epic 2006 special report on AIDS at 25 was his last major project for Newsweek and earned him a nomination for the National Magazine Award. (His AIDS coverage won a series of awards through the years, along with many other honors for his broader writing.) He was especially moved by global public health, and broke new ground writing about HIV in Rwanda and Black Fever in India.
He left Newsweek in 2006 to take his dedication to public health in another direction: as a practitioner. For four years he worked as an associate commissioner in New York City’s department of health, where he oversaw public communications in the Bloomberg administration. His notable campaigns included the phase-out of trans fats in restaurant food, the posting of calorie counts in food chains, high impact ads to combat smoking and obesity, and the launch of the iconic New York City condom.
After a brief stint working as a communications consultant, Geoff returned to journalism as one of the founding reporters of the new msnbc.com. Here he specialized in the national debate over Obamacare, as well as the health impact of social inequality: from unwanted pregnancy to obesity and chronic disease.
Geoff was a mentor to many of the younger members of the msnbc team, as well as a wise and generous co-worker to his peers. He wrote extensively online and frequently shared his reporting and analysis on msnbc television. After six years out of the news media, he was delighted to be living as a journalist once again.
He approached his long encounters with cancer with the clear eyes of a medical expert, and the dogged spirit of a news reporter. He didn’t sugar coat the facts of his own health, even as he maintained an astonishing spirit of optimism and wonder. He passed away at home – close to his wife, son, and brother – on Tuesday morning. He was 59 years old.
At msnbc, Geoff Cowley will be missed for his professional judgment and his perfect prose. But above all, he will be missed for his honesty, his grace, and his good humor.
Enjoy some of Geoff’s best work: