Dr. Leona Baumgartner

Throughout her career, Dr. Leona Baumgartner found innovative ways to capture the public’s attention and deliver her message of good health and hygiene. Elvis Presley was even persuaded to pose for a photograph as he received his polio vaccination to encourage young people to participate in the vaccination program. Dr. Baumgartner began her career in public health during the Depression, working as a pediatric intern in New York City. Home visits in Manhattan’s poorest neighborhoods brought her face to face with the effects of poverty. The families she visited often could not get basic medical care or afford healthy foods. In 1937, Dr. Baumgartner joined the New York Department of Health. She was director of public health training, and taught child and school hygiene. She rose through the ranks, coordinating city-wide health services, disease clinics, school health programs, and parenting education classes. She visited professional groups and spoke out at public forums, talking to parents and health care professionals about keeping children healthy. In 1954, Dr. Baumgartner was appointed Health Commissioner of New York City— the first woman ever to hold the job. She appeared regularly on television, teaching about preventive medicine and became the well-known face of public health in New York City. Her public appeals were key to the success of health campaigns for vaccination and fluoridation. Throughout New York, Dr. Baumgartner and her staff inspected food products and restaurants, and posted information about sanitary practices in the workplace. To aid health care workers in communicating with immigrant mothers, her staff trained midwives to be aware of cultural differences. She also worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson to reverse government policy and provide funding for birth control programs in other countries. Dr. Leona Baumgartner has been hailed as “one of those amazing women who managed to juggle several appointments and careers while maintaining a family and social life.” Her lifelong dedication to public health, combined with her tact and diplomacy, made her influential at the highest levels of government.