Leading the CDC: A job fit for an HSPH graduate

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In just two weeks, graduating students will listen to HSPH Centennial Commencement speaker Tom Frieden, Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those inspired by Frieden’s words will be pleased to know that five of the past nine directors of the CDC were HSPH alumni. Like this year’s graduates, those future leaders at one time sat at HSPH Commencement and wondered how their careers would ultimately unfold.

Our first graduate to take up the post was James Goddard, MPH ’55, appointed in 1962. While he spent just 4 years at the CDC, he was well-regarded as a public health leader; he only left the agency when he was tapped to overhaul the US Food and Drug Administration.

Goddard was immediately succeeded by David Sencer, MPH ’58, whose 11-year tenure as CDC director from 1966-1977 was the longest in the agency’s history. Sencer expanded the CDC’s role, turning it into a global disease-fighting organization that played a major part in the eradication of smallpox in the 1970s.

William Foege, MPH ’65, helped finish the job of smallpox eradication when he took over for Sencer in 1977, having developed the “surveillance/containment” approach to vaccination while doing CDC work in Nigeria earlier in the decade. In his six years as Director he also tackled Reye syndrome and toxic shock syndrome and saw the emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

James O. Mason, MPH ’63, DPH ’67, was the last in a 27-year succession of HSPH alumni leadership of the CDC. Serving from 1983-1989, he presided over an expansion of the agency’s focus beyond infectious disease, with special attention to violence as a public health problem.

Jeffrey Koplan, MPH ’78, directed the agency from 1998-2002, a capstone to a 26-year career with the CDC. His tenure was highlighted by efforts to defend the country against bioterrorism as it responded to the 2001 anthrax-by-mail attacks.

As graduates embark on their public health careers, Frieden’s advice in mind, perhaps one of them will be the next name to join this list.

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Is there an event, person, or discovery in Harvard School of Public Health history that you’d like to read about? Send your suggestions to centennial@hsph.harvard.edu.

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