Harold W. (Bill) Kohl III, Professor of Epidemiology at the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Austin and Research Professor of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin, died on January 7, 2024. He was regarded as a luminary in public health, epidemiology, and physical activity research.
An esteemed educator, mentor, and researcher, Kohl dedicated over four decades to advancing the scientific understanding of physical fitness and its impact on health and disease, conducting work at UTHealth Houston, University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, the Baylor Sports Medicine Institute, and the Physical Activity & Health Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He leaves behind a legacy that will resonate with generations to come.
Kohl authored nearly 300 articles with over 42,000 citations and an h-index of 74, highlighting his profound influence on the scientific community. His 1989 JAMA paper (“Physical fitness and all-cause mortality: a prospective study of healthy men and women”) fundamentally reshaped the public’s understanding of physical fitness as a primary risk factor for health and disease and has been cited over 6,000 times; his 2012 paper in The Lancet (“The pandemic of physical inactivity: Global action for public health”) accelerated global recognition of physical activity as a critical public health issue, garnering nearly 3,600 citations. In addition to his scientific publications, he was the lead author of important and essential textbooks in physical activity, including Foundations of Physical Activity and Public Health and Foundations of Kinesiology: A Modern Integrated Approach. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health from 2007 to 2011 and was eventually appointed Editor Emeritus.
He was a pivotal leader, driving policy and guideline changes for physical activity and public health both in the United States and globally. At the national level, he served as a Member of the Steering Committee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans; Committee Chair for the 2013 Institute of Medicine Report on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment (Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School); Chair of the U.S. National Physical Activity Plan; and Chair of the Science Board of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. In line with his visionary mindset, in 2022, Kohl developed Active Texas 2030, leading a series of nine webinars for the project.
Internationally, Kohl envisioned and led multiple transformational initiatives that elevated the status of physical activity within global public health research and promotion. He founded the International Society of Physical Activity and Health (ISPAH) in 2007, serving as the Inaugural President. He also served as Senior Member of the Steering Committee of The Lancet Physical Activity Series in 2012, 2016, 2021, and 2024 (forthcoming); Member of the Steering Committee for the Global Observatory on Physical Activity (GoPA!); Member of the Physical Activity Network of the Americas (RAFA-PANA); and Founding Member and Senior Scientific Advisor for the Latin American Society of Physical Activity and Health. Several of Kohl’s efforts were centered on building global capacity for physical activity and public health research; he taught international courses in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Malaysia, Thailand, Aruba, and Puerto Rico, among others.
During his career, Kohl received numerous awards, including being inducted as a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (both the national and the Texas chapter), the National Academy of Kinesiology, and an Inaugural Fellow of the International Society for Physical Activity and Health.
Most importantly, Kohl will be remembered for his unwavering commitment to nurturing future public health leaders, particularly at the School of Public Health in Austin, where he was one of the first faculty members. He was directing the acquisition and buildout of a new space for the Austin location, organized the university’s Physical Activity and Public Health Certificate Program, and led the Texas Physical Activity Research Collaborative, a physical activity and public health interest group with faculty and students across UT System institutions. As Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in Austin, he made doctoral studies in public health more accessible by establishing the Austin Faculty Opportunity Scholarship. Throughout his career, he advised and mentored over 80 students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty members, several of whom have gone on to exemplary careers.
Below are a few words from a few of Kohl’s closest colleagues:
Dr. Deanna Hoelscher: "Bill was one of my most trusted advisors and friends at the Austin location of the UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. Despite his national and international prominence, he was always available to our students and faculty for mentoring and advice. He loved student evaluations, orientation, and graduation, as one of his greatest joys was nurturing careers in public health. Bill loved Texas history and culture, especially Austin music and the German culture in central Texas. His untimely loss leaves a big hole at our school and in our hearts."
Dr. Steve Kelder: "Bill and I were fast friends since the day we met in 1992 when I started as Assistant Professor and he was all but dissertation for his PhD in Epidemiology. It was no secret that he and I liked to drink beer, tell jokes, and argue about science, especially the relative importance of physical activity and nutrition as risk factors for heart disease and cancer. I had the trump argument when I brought cigarette smoking into the risk factor fray. In Houston, we went to the Gingerman and the Black Lab; in Austin, it was the Dog'n'Duck and Scholz Garten. We liked old established bars and pub food. We often told each other that we were brothers from different mothers.
When Dr. Hoelscher and I started the Austin campus, I immediately knew we should recruit Bill Kohl to the faculty (sorry CDC). He wanted our campus to be a leader in public health and physical activity training and research. He relentlessly pursued these goals and based on the comments, I’d say he succeeded. But the rest of the story happened in a cab in Chicago heading to the O’Hare airport. Bill was on the fence about coming to Austin; I tried every trick I knew to convince him to join our new campus. But in that cab, I promised that if he came to Austin, I would buy the beer when we went out for the rest of his life."
Dr. Deborah Salvo: "I have too many fond memories of special moments with Bill, so it is hard to pick just one of them to share. Bill was a globally renowned and admired leader in physical activity and health research and promotion. However, more important to me was that he was my dear friend, my mentor, my biggest cheerleader, and my most honest critic. I owe so many things in my career to him that I've lost count. He helped so many become involved in physical activity research and promotion. He brought his joy, passion, and knowledge to all corners of the world, with a special commitment to low- and middle-income countries. If I had to define him in one word, I would highlight his generosity. I will miss him dearly, and as I told him many times, I will do my best to carry on his legacy."
Dr. Augusto César De Moraes " 'Hey Bill, It’s midnight, and OU still sucks!' You passed away before we had agreed, Bill. You promised to make me like baseball! But I can’t complain; you forever changed my life, especially during my darkest times. I will never forget you when I go to our “church.” I don’t know how often I’ve thought and cried about you today. I try to remember what a fantastic person you were. I will place your Pope hat in my office as a reminder. I can't believe I will walk into the building and not see you there."
Dr. Alanna C. Morrison "What I loved most about Bill was his unwavering generosity. One of the things I will remember the most is that he always took the time to send a funny or supportive text at just the right moment. For example, there were times when a difficult department administrative decision needed to be made or a tense issue was being discussed, and he would reach out and simply say, “Good decision” or “Well said”. He was generous and kind and gave his time and support to every person who had the fortune of interacting with him. I will miss him greatly."
Dr. Eric Boerwinkle "Dr. Kohl believed in the importance and effectiveness of public health, research, student education and faculty mentoring, and community health practice, especially as these things were pointed at chronic disease prevention starting in children. More broadly, Bill believed in what is good. He saw the good in people, and the good in day-to-day situations. He saw the good in life, even with its ups and downs, and when it is cut short. Bill was good, and our memories of him are good."
You can read more about Bill and his life and family in the Austin American Statesman Obituary, as well as share your own thoughts and memories.