Photo from left to right; Patrizio Caturegli, M.D., M.P.H., Director of The Autoimmune Research Center, Johns Hopkins Medicine; Sandra Boek Werness, Executive Director, GAI; Paulina Chalan, PhD, Walter and Jean Boek Autoimmune Research Fellow, Division of Immunology, Johns Hopkins Medicine

Our Story

At the Global Autoimmune Institute, we are committed to improving diagnosis and physician/patient relationships, while supporting multidisciplinary approaches to wellness throughout our global autoimmune community. We are dedicated to empowering patients and caregivers by providing easily-accessible, credible resources for identifying autoimmune indicators and supporting disease management, as well as the latest research and treatments. 

We are creating collaborative partnerships to deepen our understanding of autoimmunity by funding innovative medical research through grants and awards. We are compassionately raising awareness of autoimmune disease, locally and globally, through open, informed dialogue and outreach.

The History of the Global Autoimmune Institute

The Global Autoimmune Institute had its origins in the mid 1960’s as a research institute for public health, founded by Dr. Walter E. Boek along with a Board of Directors drawn from distinguished community leaders. Their mission soon transformed, leading to the founding of a graduate school dedicated to the teaching of science, technology and sociology using an interdisciplinary approach.

Dr. Boek previously had enjoyed a distinguished career in the public health field, serving as an assistant to the Commissioner of Health of New York State during the 1950’s. He expanded and administered what was considered at the time to be the most productive and influential social science research program in the world. His wife Dr. Jean K. Boek, ran a number of important public health research studies. Among her many discoveries were the demonstration for the first time of the association between cigarette smoking and heart disease, and that seatbelt use saved lives. 

Drs. Walter and Jean Boek co-authored the seminal book Society and Health [citation], and published numerous academic papers, both individually and together. Their contributions were invaluable in developing our understanding of the importance of social issues in public health. This field became known as medical sociology.

Dr. Walter Boek would go on to work for the Health Information Foundation, seeking to develop effective communication among American physicians. In addition, both Drs. Boek served as full time and visiting professors at various colleges and universities. They will long be remembered for their warm and caring devotion to their students. 

After Dr. Walter Boek’s death, the organization’s Board of Directors hired Sandra Boek Werness, the eldest daughter of Walter and Jean Boek, as its new President and CEO, and now Executive Director. They knew that her leadership would bring the organization into a new era of growth and accomplishment. Her prior work experience on Capitol Hill – years as a practicing attorney and then managing a medical practice – would benefit the organization in many important ways. Sandy left her ten year-long position as Vice President of Northern Virginia Pathology, and began her new job. 

In 2013, after extensive consideration, the Board concluded that a new mission was in order. Sandy was particularly concerned with the widespread incidence of autoimmune disease, as well as the failure to identify and diagnose many of these conditions. She had experienced common difficulties in advocating for one of her daughters, who was not well-served by the medical community. The lack of understanding they encountered in schools and the community underscored a swelling information gap in healthcare and support for patients with chronic illness.

Sandy and the other members of the Board saw autoimmune diseases and associated neurological disorders as representative of a serious public health problem. A growing number of people in an often medically underserved population were continuing to be affected, requiring increased education, scientific research, and general public awareness.

The Board therefore concluded that the resources of the organization would best be dedicated to improving the lives of those suffering from autoimmune diseases and neurological disorders. Due in large part to Sandy’s knowledge, drive, experience, and community ties, she was in a unique position to make a significant difference. The assets of the organization were marshaled, and The Global Autoimmune Institute was born.