Baumgartner, Leona, 1902-1991Variant names
Leona Baumgartner (1902-1991), A.B., 1923, University of Kansas; M.A., 1925, University of Kansas; Ph.D., 1932, Yale University; M.D., 1934, Yale University, was the first female Commissioner of Public Health for New York City, 1954 to 1962, and later became an Assistant Director of the Agency for International Development (AID), a position she held until 1965. She was named Visiting Professor of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston, in 1966, where she served until her retirement in 1972.
Leona Baumgartner was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1902 to Swiss immigrants William and Olga (Leisy) Baumgartner. The family relocated to Lawrence, Kansas in 1904 when William, a zoologist, accepted a faculty position at the University of Kansas. Baumgartner inherited her father’s keen interest in science and she received both a Bachelor’s degree in Bacteriology and a Master’s degree in Immunology from the University of Kansas in 1923 and 1925, respectively. During this time (and the years to follow), she served as a teacher at Colby (Kansas) Community High School. Following her education, Baumgartner was awarded a Rockefeller research fellowship at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Munich, in 1928. Upon her return to the United States, Baumgartner enrolled at Yale University, where she subsequently received her Ph.D. in Immunology and her M.D. in 1934. Her internships in pediatrics during this time would be instrumental in shaping her career in public health, as she witnessed first hand the relationship between poverty and illness. In 1936, she joined the United States Public Health Service as Acting Assistant Surgeon before embarking on her long career with the City of New York in 1937.
Steadily rising through the ranks of city government, Baumgartner served as Director of Public Health Training (1938-1939), Director of the Bureau of Child Health (1941-1948), and Assistant Commissioner of Maternal and Child Health Services (1949-1953). After a brief hiatus, in which she acted as Associate Chief of the United States Children’s Bureau, Washington, D.C., Baumgartner returned to New York to work as Executive Director of the New York Foundation. In 1954, Mayor Robert Wagner appointed her Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and in 1962, President John F. Kennedy named Baumgartner Assistant Administrator of Technical Cooperation and Research for the Agency of International Development, which made her the highest ranking female in government at the time. After her departure from the Agency for International Development, Baumgartner accepted a post as Visiting Professor of Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School (1965), where she remained until her retirement in 1972. During this time she also served as Executive Director of the Medical Care and Education Foundation, Inc., Boston.
Throughout her career in public health administration, Baumgartner was dedicated to education as a cornerstone of building a healthier community. After becoming district health officer in 1939, she coordinated a growing number of health services, such as school health programs, parenting classes, and clinics on venereal disease. Maternal and child health was an important focus throughout her years in public service and informed her decision to promote family planning practices and birth control. She is credited with convincing President Lyndon Johnson to reverse a government policy denying funding for international programs providing birth control to make contraception more widely available. She was also an early advocate of using the Salk vaccine to immunize against polio and was an integral supporter of fluoridating New York City’s water supply. As Health Commissioner, Baumgartner continued in the vein of Dr. S. Josephine Baker, who began a tradition of home health visits, by giving weekly radio and television addresses that tackled topics such as home safety and sanitation practices. The recipient of numerous honors, Baumgartner was awarded the Sedgwick Medal, the Albert Lasker Award, the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, the Samuel J. Crumbine Award, and the Public Welfare Award from the National Academy of Sciences in recognition of her many contributions to the field of public health.
Leona Baumgartner was married to Nathanial Elias, a chemical engineer, from 1942 until his death in 1964. She married Dr. Alexander D. Langmuir in 1970, who survived her after her death in 1991 from polycythemia.
From the guide to the Leona Baumgartner Papers, 1837-1993 (inclusive), 1930-1970 (bulk)., (Center for the History of Medicine. Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.)
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