Dr. Leona Baumgartner, first female commissioner of the New York City Department of Health from 1954 to 1962, delivered her message of good health and hygiene to the nation in the form of easy-to-understand brochures and no-nonsense television and radio broadcasts.
Baumgartner was a graduate of the University of Kansas, from which she also received a master’s degree in bacteriology and immunology and a Ph.D. in immunology and public health. She received a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1934 from Yale University, where she held the Sterling and University fellowships for research.
During a pediatric internship, she went on home visits in New York City’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Seeing parents struggle to care for their families convinced her of the need for better health practices and birth control. In 1937, Baumgartner joined the New York City Department of Health, where she began a public health career focusing on the advancement of maternal and child-health services. In recognition of her work, she was named director of the department’s Bureau of Child Hygiene in 1941.
As New York’s Commissioner of Health, she became the well- known face of public health in the city, regularly making public appeals on behalf of preventive medicine, such as vaccinations and fluoridation. She rewrote the city’s health code, which had last been updated nearly 45 years earlier. She also was responsible for coordinating parenting classes, disease clinics and school health programs as well as the establishment of a municipally financed program of public health and medical research.
Among her many honorary degrees and awards were the Elizabeth Blackwell Citation from the New York Infirmary and the Lasker Award, the highest honor in the field of public health in America. She died in 1991.