Had civil war not erupted in the Dominican Republic in the Spring and Summer of 1965, James H. Willig, M.D., MSPH might never have been born. 

Like many people, James H. Willig developed in a complex, multifaceted environment. To fully understand his unique perspective and career track requires a journey back in time and through space, to the origin tales of a man from Oklahoma and a woman from the Dominican Republic who would become his parents. 

            In 1963, democratic elections in the Dominican Republic elevated Juan Emilio Bosch Gaviño to the office of president, replacing a military junta that had held power for two James Willigyears. Bosch’s proposed reforms angered business magnates and the army alike, spurring the military to overthrow Bosch and install their own candidate under military rule again in 1965. Constitutionalists, including Colonel Francisco Alberto Caamaño Deñó, supported Bosch; the United States, fearing Bosch would lead the Dominican Republic into becoming another Cuba, sided with the military and sent troops.

            Ultimately a peace accord was reached, mandating a new election. But U.S. involvement in the conflict had been tremendously unpopular, and Santo Domingo was the site of incredible violence.

            It was against this backdrop that native Oklahoman James Frederick Willig began looking for a job teaching history somewhere in Latin America.

            Raised in poverty in rural Oklahoma, James Frederick grew up in an environment in which racial separation and discrimination was normalized. This perception was challenged during his adolescence when he went to the “wrong” side of town to sell some possums that were the product of his day’s hunting. An African American man invited him into his home, offered him a cold coke, and insisted on paying him more than James’ asking price because he felt that it was fair. This encounter spurred a questioning process than continued as James lied about his age to join the Marines, spent time in the Peace Corps in Malawi teaching English, and completed a college degree in history. 

            In the mid-1960s, as James began joined the Job Corps to use his degree in history to teach underprivileged students in Massachusetts, the American civil rights movement was in full swing. James was appalled at how African Americans were being treated by the country he had served, and decided that the United States did not represent the values that he held dear. He began applying for teaching jobs in Latin America.

            As it happened, the Carol Morgan School in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, was looking for a history teacher even though it was October and the school year had already begun.

            They were seeking a history teacher because the previous teacher had been murdered in the civil war of 1965. 

            As a former marine and Peace Corps member, James was not intimidated by the anti-U.S. graffiti in the Santo Domingo reading, “Yankee, go home!” He was committed to making a life for himself in his new country – a quest that solidified after meeting a lovely periodontist named Milagros Moralesat a party.

            Milagros spoke English, which meant she and James could converse. Two weeks after their first meeting, they were married – a marriage that would endure for 50 years until his father’s death in 2018.

            These days, the younger James Willig, smiles as he recalls his parents’ connection. “I’m one generation removed from illiteracy on both sides,” he says. 

            Milagros’ mother was the fourth of five children. Her mother could not read or write but nonetheless insisted that her children study. Each day, she would dress them in white when she left the house; dirt or stains on the white clothes would indicate they had been playing instead of studying. Each night, she would line them up and list the professions to which they should aspire: engineer, doctor, businessperson. The message she gave her children was clear: they would all go to college, and they would all achieve educational and professional success. 

            Milagros and her siblings fulfilled their mother’s dreams, with her brothers and sisters becoming a nephrologist (the first in the Dominican Republic), a cardiologist, a businessperson, and an engineer, respectively. Milagros went to dental school to become a periodontist, spending time at Temple University in the United States on scholarship. When her mother developed health problems, Milagros moved back to the Dominican Republic to assume her family role as caregiver. It was then she met James Willig, Sr., and they got married and started a family. Both James and Milagros were determined to raise their children with integrity, a solid work ethic, and a sense of awareness about their world.

            It was against this backdrop that James H. Willig, who would grow up to become an infectious disease and informatics expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was born. 

            James H. Willig, is the younger child of James of Milagros, the second of two siblings. Willig and his older sister grew up in the Dominican Republic, and attended the Carol Morgan school, where their father taught. The school was an exclusive private school, taught in English, where the children of embassy officials received their education. The young Willigs spent their formative educational years with young people from 60 different countries. Thanks to this exposure, and the quality of the school, both Willig children received an exceptional education – although their socioeconomic status differed substantially from their schoolmates’.

            Willig recalls visiting a classmate’s home as a child. Willig had only two toys, both very well-loved: a GI Joe figure, and a Transformer. His classmate had two cabinets filled with every GI Joe toy and Transformer manufactured in the last 5 years, all still in their boxes. 

            “I remember thinking that night, after I went home, that I enjoyed my two little toys more than he enjoyed all of his toys,” Willig says, “because I was able to appreciate and play with the toys I had.”

            Both of his parents taught him a strong work ethic – and an equally strong sense of humility. His mother insisted that everyone, no matter their station in life, had something to teach. When Willig’s adolescent cockiness was getting the best of him, his mother asked him if he thought he knew more than the maid who came occasionally to help maintain their home. Willig answered that he certainly did; he was in calculus in school, after all. So his mother insisted that he follow the maid and have a conversation with her.

            “It became clear that I didn’t know how to clean a bathroom, that I couldn’t cook a pot of rice, I couldn’t even cook a chicken,” Willig says. “It became clear that I was an imbecile.”

            From the elder James., Willig acquired a love of books. His father was often home indoors due to the skin cancer that would ultimately take his life, and Willig was home with severe asthma attacks. Willig’s father would go to the library and bring him books to read, encouraging him to pursue ideas outside of his normal realm of experience. 

            Willig began to question the limitations of culture, realizing that it was possible to embrace the characteristics that were exceptional in each culture to which he was exposed. His mother, a Dominican, extolled the virtues of American culture; his father, an American, was verbal on the benefits of Dominican culture. With friends from all over the world, Willig thought he could learn something from everyone with whom he came into contact.

            As he grew toward adulthood, building piece by piece the framework that would inform the rest of his life, Willig was cultivating a passion for the field that he was convinced would ultimately be his career:

            Video games.

             Willig loved video games. 

            His parents bought him a used Atari and 6 video games when he was young, and he had soon bartered his way to more than 80 games. He quickly became the local expert in defeating difficult video games, acting as a consultant to his friends. He credits video gaming with building his critical thinking and memorization skills. His career trajectory, he felt sure, would involve working with games.

            The problem he encountered was that in 1991 in the Dominican Republic, a college degree in video game design wasn’t available, and Willig’s parents could not afford the tuition to send him to college in the United States. As the other students at Carol Morgan School matriculated to universities in the U.S., Willig found he lacked the scholarship funds to make such a transition possible. Higher education, if it happened, would have to take place at home. 

            The higher education system in the Dominican Republic is structured differently than U.S. higher education. Universities are professional training grounds; students move directly from high school into an area of specialty, such as dental school or medical school. 

            Willig’s father, James, sat down with his son to discuss his options.

            “We can’t afford even one semester of school in the United States,” Willig remembers his father telling him. “You’ll need to go to college here. You can join the military, like I did, or you can go to college. But if you don’t go to college, you are no longer a member of this family.”

            It felt like a body blow to the new high school graduate. Unlike his more affluent classmates, his options were limited, and apart from video games, he wasn’t sure what else he liked to do.

            “Try medical school,” his father suggested. “If you don’t like it, you can change colleges, but start there.”

            Willig knew very little about medicine, although his uncle was a nephrologist and his aunt was a cardiologist. He decided that medicine was as reasonable a choice as any, and enrolled in medical school at the Instituto Tecnologico de Santo Domingo. 

            But Willig was depressed and despondent – and, more than this, he was overwhelmed. Unlike high school, all the classes in medical school were taught in Spanish, a language that he didn’t know well enough to speak on a college level. 

            After about a year of classes, Willig found himself in a biology course taught by a professor named Anne Mercedes Henriquez. She was explaining meiosis, and Willig was fascinated. He raised his hand without, he says, even realizing that he was doing it. Quickly, he lowered his hand, aware that his Spanish wasn’t sufficiently proficient for him to ask his question intelligently.

            Henriquez rapped on his desk. “You have a question for me,” she said.

            “No, ma’am,” Willig said.

            “So,” she returned, “you’re saying that I’m a senile old lady who is imagining things.”

            Willig was appalled. “Oh, no, ma’am, I’m not saying that!”

            “Well, either you have a question,” she said, “or I’m a senile old lady who is imagining that you had a question. Which is it?”

            Gripped by terror, Willig explained that his Spanish wasn’t good enough to ask the question. Henriquez sought out the English-speaking students in the class, and instructed one of them to translate Willig’s question. She nodded, said, “that’s a good question,” and spent several minutes explaining the answer.

            After moving one of the English-speaking students next to Willig to translate throughout the class, Henriquez smiled sweetly at Willig and told him, “If you don’t ask me at least one question every ten minutes, I will fail you.”

            “I am a physician because of her,” Willig says now. “This woman changed my life. She had an interest in me. I was depressed; I felt like I wasn’t smart enough to make it to the United States for school like all my classmates were; I thought I was a fool. She helped me build my self confidence and self-respect.”

            Ultimately, Willig became Henriquez’ teaching assistant, after writing a manual to assist students in preparing their oral presentations for biology. Willig’s manual was so helpful that Henriquez eventually incorporated it into a book that she wrote, which is still available in the school’s library. 

            “I wasn’t able to look myself in the eye when I started medical school,” Willig says, “but when that teacher believed in me enough to run the class, I stopped comparing myself to other students. I stopped seeing a 95 as an A – I saw it as a minus 5. That meant that there was more for me to learn so that I didn’t hurt someone. It wasn’t about where I was in the classroom, it was where I was with myself.”

            After graduation, Willig was required to spend one year in government service. He was sent to a rural mountainous region, where he voluntarily assumed extra night shifts at the hospital in order to have more exposure to the kinds of resources and mentors that he knew would help him become a better doctor. After his year of service, he was accepted to the residency program for internal medicine at the University of Virginia Roanoke-Salem. 

            It was there that two important things happened for Willig: he gained an interest in infectious diseases, and he met the woman whom he would marry. 

            Willig’s first scientific passion was for internal medicine, but the burden of chronic, often incurable disease could prove daunting to address. He recalls successfully treating a meningitis case early on in his residency, which motivated him to pursue an emphasis in infectious diseases. It would, he felt, give him that sense of a “win” from time to time – a crucial source of encouragement. 

            While pursuing his medical residency, Willig met Amanda, the woman who would become his wife. Also studying infectious diseases, she shared many of the same interests. “She does research I’m not smart enough to understand,” Willig says. “My father always said to marry someone who was smarter than you, and I did that.”

            The couple married in 2002, and now have two children. Dr. Amanda Willig also works at UAB.

            Willig has expanded his areas of exptertise to not only include patient care, but research, informatics, and education. It is this four-part equation, he says, that gets him out of bed in the morning. “If I see patients 24/7,” he says, “there is a limit to the number of people I can help, to the positive impact I can have. But I am lucky enough to do research. I am lucky enough to be certified in clinical informatics, which means people I will never meet may benefit from what I do. And if I invest in the education of students, they will affect people’s lives positively.”

            Willig believes that life is a continual learning process, and that if you aren’t being pushed or challenged, you’re not learning. He continues to pursue new opportunities for growth in his career and personal life.

            Willig says, “My parents always said, if you walk out of a place and didn’t make it better, then you have failed.”