Maryn McKenna awarded 2023 Victor Cohn Prize
Maryn McKenna (@marynmck), senior writer at WIRED and a widely published journalist and author specializing in public health, global health, and food policy, has been selected to receive the 2023 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.
In selecting McKenna from an extraordinarily competitive field of nominees, the judges hailed her reporting and writing on infectious disease and global health as authoritative, deeply sourced, and beautifully written. “Stories about these complex topics could easily sound like term papers,” wrote one judge, “but hers don’t. They center compelling characters—scientists, doctors, patients—in vividly rendered settings, and the writing is clear and definitive. In short, these stories felt like they were breaking new ground, written by a seasoned journalist who is ahead of the curve.”
McKenna, who is a senior fellow of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University, was honored for work published in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Smithsonian, and The New Republic, as well as WIRED.
The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting is awarded annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) for a body of work published or broadcast within the last five years. McKenna will receive a $5,000 cash award and be recognized during an October 7 awards ceremony at ScienceWriters2023, a joint meeting of CASW and the National Association of Science Writers to be held in Colorado this fall. She will discuss one of her prizewinning stories during a “story behind the story” session October 8.
Beginning this year, the Cohn Prize is underwritten by Michelson Philanthropies, a Los Angeles-based philanthropic foundation devoted to supporting medical research, equity in education, and improving animal welfare. A reception sponsored by Michelson Philanthropies celebrating the Cohn Prize will follow the awards ceremony.
“Michelson Philanthropies supports excellence in journalism, and we are pleased to partner with CASW as they continue to recognize the importance of science writers,” said Geoffrey Baum, executive director of Michelson Philanthropies. “Journalists play a critical role in connecting the scientific community with the general public by presenting complex material clearly, accurately, and without bias. Sharing breakthrough discoveries and holding institutions accountable is essential to the vitality of scientific research. Our thanks to the judges and congratulations to Maryn McKenna for her exceptional work.”
Maryn McKenna has reported from 25 countries and been on the front lines of major epidemics, including H5N1 flu in 1997, SARS in 2003, the H1N1 flu in 2009, and COVID. Her work has taken her to a field hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a Thai village erased by the Indian Ocean tsunami, and other disease hotspots from Yunnan to Malawi. She has had a career-long interest in antibiotic misuse in medicine and agriculture, and much of her work explores the complex issues around the rise of drug resistance.
Before becoming a freelance writer, McKenna reported for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Boston Herald and then joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was the only U.S. journalist assigned to full-time coverage of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An Atlanta colleague, Diane Lore, whose own infection with antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus became the focus of a chapter in one of McKenna’s books, compared her journalism to McKenna’s hobby of weaving.
“Sometimes, events like a historic pandemic make it easier to churn out amazing projects, with death, disease, heroics and pain making for compelling narratives,” Lore wrote in a letter supporting the nomination. “But the best of public health reporting is borne from years of commitment to the craft. Maryn has this.”
McKenna is the author of three award-winning books: Superbug (2010); Beating Back the Devil: On the Front Lines with the Disease Detectives of the Epidemic Intelligence Service (2004); and the bestselling Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats (2017).
Among many other awards, her reporting has been honored with a AAAS-Kavli Award for magazine science writing, two Science in Society Journalism Awards from the National Association of Science Writers, the John P. McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, the Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences, and the AH Boerma Award from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing and a variety of other collections. Her books have won numerous awards and other recognitions. Big Chicken was named a Best Book of 2017 by Amazon, Science News, Smithsonian Magazine, Civil Eats, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Toronto Globe and Mail; an Essential Science Read by WIRED; and a 2018 Book All Georgians Should Read.
The judges noted that McKenna is also known for her teaching and her generosity as a mentor and colleague. In addition to her current courses at Emory, her teaching includes global online courses produced during the COVID-19 pandemic for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which were co-sponsored by the United Nations Development Program, UNESCO, and the World Health Organization, and taken by more than 10,000 journalists from 160 countries. She has held journalism fellowships at MIT and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, as well as Harvard Medical School, the University of Maryland, and the East-West Center of Honolulu, and has been a guest lecturer and instructor at numerous schools including the University of Georgia.
The Victor Cohn Prize
McKenna is the 28th recipient of the Cohn prize, given for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years. This year’s entries were judged by freelance science journalist Jill U. Adams; Brooke Borel, articles editor for Undark magazine; Stephanie M. Lee, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education and a 2022 Cohn Prize honoree; Brendan Maher, features editor for Nature; and Marilynn Marchione, former chief medical writer for the Associated Press and winner of the 2010 Cohn Prize. The judging was chaired by freelance writer Christie Aschwanden, vice president of CASW and author most recently of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.
The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting has been presented since 2000. In addition to Lee and Marchione, past recipients include Laurie Garrett of Newsday; Lawrence K. Altman of The New York Times; Jon Palfreman, a public television documentarian; Daniel Q. Haney, medical editor of The Associated Press; Shannon Brownlee, a noted magazine writer and book author; Michelle Trudeau of National Public Radio; Rick Weiss of the Washington Post; Jerome Groopman of The New Yorker; Geeta Anand of The Wall Street Journal; Denise Grady of The New York Times; Ron Winslow of The Wall Street Journal; Jon Cohen of Science magazine; John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; freelance health reporter and former NPR correspondent Joanne Silberner; Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times; Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Liz Szabo, health writer for USA Today and senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News; the late Sharon Begley, senior science writer at STAT; Apoorva Mandavilli, founder of Spectrum and now a New York Times science writer; Ed Yong, formerly of The Atlantic; Helen Branswell of STAT; Nature senior reporter Amy Maxmen; and Pam Belluck of The New York Times.
The award honors the late Washington Post medical writer and health columnist Victor Cohn, known as the dean of medical science reporting. He distinguished himself by the clarity and effectiveness of his reporting during a 50-year career that began with outstanding coverage of early “wonder” drugs and the polio vaccine, as well as the dawn of the modern space age. Late in his career, Cohn started a Post column called “The Patient’s Advocate,” and authored News & Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields. Cohn, who died of cancer in 2000, was a co-founder in 1959 of CASW.
CASW is a not-for-profit organization committed to improving the quality and quantity of science news reaching the public.
For links to Maryn McKenna’s recent work, visit her website.