The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $105 million grant to launch an institute at the University of Washington that...

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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a $105 million grant to launch an institute at the University of Washington that experts say will strengthen Seattle’s growing reputation in global health research.

The grant to create the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation is the single largest gift to the UW. The university is contributing an additional $20 million. Combined, the money is earmarked to launch and operate the institute for 10 years.

The institute will be run by Chris Murray, a Harvard professor and global health leader who’s been recruited for the job. The institute will evaluate international health programs and spending.

UW President Mark Emmert said Monday the institute’s work will get underway soon in existing UW facilities, but that there are no immediate plans for a new building. The new institute has a web site: www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org

The institute will be guided by an international board of health experts chaired by Dr. Julio Frenk, Mexico’s former minister of health and a senior fellow at the Gates Foundation.

Murray seemed almost destined to tackle world health problems: As a boy, when others his age were learning to ride bikes and fish, he was traveling across Africa with his parents as they set up health clinics and ran hospitals.

“It was pretty captivating,” Murray, 44, said in a recent interview. “I never really thought much about careers, but I always knew I’d do something in global health.”

He would later win a Rhodes scholarship, graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University with a medical degree and become a top official at the World Health Organization.

News of the institute, due to open in the fall, first surfaced in February when UW regents discussed draft plans for the project. The university is expected to put in some money for the institute, but most will come from the Gates Foundation.

The institute was to have been at Harvard, but software mogul Larry Ellison last year rescinded a promised gift of $115 million, citing leadership concerns after the departure of former Harvard President Lawrence Summers.

Murray said he plans to bring several junior researchers with him from Harvard and other universities, and he hopes to recruit other talent from around the world.

The institute will focus on research and will not offer undergraduate degrees, he said, although it will offer a master’s degree program for 25 to 40 students.

Murray officially became a UW employee May 1 and will be paid $420,000 in his first year, making him one of the UW’s — and the state’s — highest-paid employees.

He grew up in the rural New Zealand town of Matamata, later immortalized as the setting for Hobbiton in “The Lord of the Rings” movie trilogy.

He went to high school in Minnesota after his parents, a doctor and a microbiologist, moved there to work at the Mayo Clinic.

His work defies simple explanation. One way to think about it, he said, is to compare the health-care world to the business world.

In business, everyone knows exactly how much money is invested in a company, how much its products sell for and how much profit results, Murray said.

“We can’t imagine doing business without it. But when you turn to health care, we don’t have it,” Murray said. “When people in business cheat and break the rules, like with Enron, there’s an extraordinary scandal. Yet we don’t know what we get for all these large investments in health care.”

That lack of accountability prompted Murray and colleague Alan Lopez in the early 1990s to develop a measure for the global “burden of disease” — a systematic, numeric way to quantify health problems in terms of deaths, life years lost and years compromised by illness.

Lopez, who now heads the public-health school at the University of Queensland in Australia, recalls how Murray and he developed much of the model while working out of an unheated barn in Maine.

“For a period of 12 months, it was absolute hell,” Lopez said. “We were doing something that had never been done before: measuring the health of the world. He had no doubt we could do it, while I had every doubt we could ever do it.”

The pair came up with 50,000 separate measures of health, Lopez said. But their work wasn’t warmly received.

One key measure they developed — called Disability Affected Life Years, or DALY — was derided by public-health leaders at the time, who accused the pair of making unethical judgments and comparisons about disease and suffering.

“We called them the DALY wars. The public-health community railed against Chris in particular,” Lopez said. “It was a very tumultuous period of four to six years.”

But Lopez said one person who took a shine to the work was Bill Gates, who began carrying the pair’s summary book with him everywhere. Whenever someone would ask him for money, according to Lopez, Gates would quiz them about their “burden of disease” measurement.

Eventually, the wider public-health community — and the World Health Organization — also came to embrace the measure, now seen as an important yardstick in health-care accountability.

Murray said his research turned up some surprising results about problems in the developing world.

While people had previously focused on illnesses such as malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis, Murray said they found three problems were being largely ignored: mental health, traffic injuries and heart disease/diabetes. Those findings helped shift people’s perceptions — and their resources.

“It had a reasonably significant effect on what’s on the policy agenda,” Murray said.

Colleagues of Murray describe him as hard-working, focused and possessing an uncanny ability to unearth meaning from obscure data.

In an e-mail, Harvard School of Public Health Dean Barry Bloom said Murray is “one of those rare academics who’ve really changed the world.”

“He’s a phenomenon,” Lopez said. “He’s an extraordinary intellect and a driver in global health.”