From 1954 to 1962, Leona Baumgartner, M.D., served as the first woman commissioner of New York City's Department of Health. She used her position to bring no-nonsense health and hygiene advice to millions of Americans via regular television and radio broadcasts, and by sending health care professionals to visit schools and church groups. Throughout her career, she broadened the scope of public health by teaching preventive medicine in easy-to-understand brochures, and helped to improve the health of New York's poorest and most vulnerable.
Leona Baumgartner was born in Chicago in 1902 to Swiss immigrants Olga and William Baumgartner. When her father, a zoologist, joined the faculty at the University of Kansas in 1904, the family moved to Lawrence, KS. She took a keen interest in science as a child, accompanying her father on field trips to the Puget Sound Marine Station in Friday Harbour, Washington, every summer. She earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Kansas, in 1923 and 1925.
Baumgartner worked as a Rockefeller research fellow at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Munich, in 1928, completed her Ph.D. in immunology at Yale University Medical School in 1932, and her M.D. in 1934. During her internship in pediatrics from 1934 to 1936 she went on home visits to some of the poorest areas of Depression-Era New York. This experience made her more aware of the relationship between poverty and ill-health. Seeing parents struggle to care for large families convinced her of the need for birth control and good health practices. Throughout graduate school she also taught public health, nursing, preventive medicine, and pediatrics.
In 1937, Dr. Baumgartner joined the New York City Department of Health, and in 1938 she became a medical instructor in child and school hygiene and director of public health training. Over the next twenty-four years she drew on her work in health education to improve the health of all Americans and expand the scope of public health. Besides inspecting food products and restaurants, Dr. Baumgartner and her staff also promoted good hygiene practices. To tackle maternal and infant health problems and improve the relations between immigrant parents and their health care providers, they also trained midwives to be aware of cultural differences.
In 1939, when Dr. Baumgartner was made district health officer, she coordinated a growing number of health services including venereal disease clinics, school health programs, and parenting classes. Two years later, in 1941, she was promoted to director of the Bureau of Child Hygiene, and expanded efforts to integrate public health services by persuading charitable organizations to work with her agencies. Building on the home-visit program pioneered by Dr. S. Josephine Baker two decades earlier, Dr. Baumgartner extended her educational efforts to professional groups and gave public lectures on good hygiene and nutrition.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the American Red Cross hoped to recruit Dr. Baumgartner, but she chose instead to continue as assistant commissioner of Maternal and Child Health Services at the department of health.
From 1954 to 1962, as New York City's first woman commissioner of the department of health, Dr. Baumgartner established programs in research and preventive medicine, revised the New York Sanitary Code, and raised funds for the Public Health Research Institute. She used her public profile to educate the public, giving regular talks on television about preventive medicine, promoting the value of good health above and beyond merely the absence of disease.
Leona Baumgartner's public appeal was key to the successful introduction of vaccination campaigns and, eventually, fluoridation. Her tact and diplomacy made her influential at the highest levels of government, where she worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson to reverse government policy on funding for international programs providing birth control to make contraception more widely available. She later became head of the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1962, at the invitation of President John F. Kennedy, and in 1958 on one of the first cultural exchange missions of the Cold War, Leona Baumgartner and other women physicians visited hospitals and nurseries in the former Soviet Union.
Balancing a busy career with a rewarding personal life, Dr. Baumgartner raised two children and pursued a life-long interest in the history of medicine, publishing works on Leonardo da Vinci's studies of physiology and the 19th-century public health policies of Johann Frank.