The most influential person in global health | 

Tom Paulson

Bill Foege in the hills near his boyhood home of Colville, Washington

Is Bill Foege.

This may sound like a personal opinion but it is, in fact, an informed, journalistic and observational if slightly gestalt statement of reality … insofar as I can tell.

I’ve covered global health as a journalist now for as long as it’s been a popular phrase and I would argue — with anyone, Bill Gates, Bono or Jimmy Carter if need be — that Bill Foege is probably the single most important person in global health.

The reason he has been so influential is the same reason so many people don’t seem to know who he is — or if you do know of him, how to pronounce his name.

It’s Fay-Ghee. Not Fogey. Or Foje.

You should know his name because he’s the guy who figured out the strategy that rid the world of smallpox — so far the only human disease ever eradicated. Foege is credited by Bill and Melinda Gates for helping craft their global health mission — a mission that now, arguably, sets the agenda for international health.

He was the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, appointed by President Jimmy Carter and stayed on for the first part of the Reagan Administration when the AIDS epidemic first emerged. His career in global health started half a century ago, when he and his wife Paula moved to Nigeria where he worked as a medical missionary.

Tom Paulson

Bill and Paula Foege's home in eastern Nigeria

Almost every person I’ve met in my many years covering public health and global health has a Bill Foege story. He seems to have had some kind of influence or involvement in almost every global health story I run across.

“Far beyond the eradication of smallpox, he has been a mentor and an inspiration for everyone in the field. And he has been responsible for the emergence of the field of global health,” said Dr. King Holmes, head of global health at the University of Washington (where Foege earned his medical degree. He earned his bachelor degree at Pacific Lutheran University).

The guy who beat smallpox, one of the leading architects of modern global health — and so many still can’t say his name right? Dammit! Why didn’t the Germans learn how to spell their names correctly when they came over here? Fay-Ghee. Say it out loud. Remember it. Everyone should know this name.

But perhaps another reason so many people still are not aware of Dr. William Foege’s critical role in helping to guide and define what we mean by ‘global health’ today is that he’s done everything he can to divert attention from himself.

Foege almost never talks about himself. He’s so self-effacing that when he finally wrote a book on the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox, House on Fire, I remember reading a draft chapter in which he described someone trying to sleep under a bednet in a terribly hot, mosquito-infested hotel room in India.

Great scene Bill, but who’s under the net? Foege had left himself out of his own story. It took some heavy editing to get him to include more of himself — the architect of the smallpox campaign — much against his will. I SHOULD NOTE: The book, in final form, is a great read and provides fascinating insight into what some consider the world’s greatest global health achievement.

I chuckled when I read this article in Scientific American in which Jimmy Carter was speaking to a group of journalists about the Carter Center’s pioneering work on global health, especially on neglected diseases like guinea worm (which may be the next human disease to be eradicated). Carter attributed his success to operating according to the principle of “not taking credit” — which, of course, he sort of appeared to be doing. Taking credit, that is, for a lot of the programs Foege — as former head of the Carter Center — started or fostered. What made me chuckle even more is that I know Foege is the one who probably told Carter how important it was not to take credit.

Despite all his attempts to remain in the background (difficult for a man 6’7”), Foege is these days getting more recognition. The latest is being selected by President Barack Obama to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, along with musician Bob Dylan, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, astronaut John Glenn and other notables.

I sat down with Foege a while ago at his Vashon Island home (he and Paula have since moved back to Atlanta) to ask him for his thoughts on where we are today with global health, and where we are headed. You can listen to the interview  by clicking on the podcast above or at the post on KPLU.org.

Bill Foege is one of the most insightful, accomplished, humble and subversively influential people I have ever met. He deserves all the recognition he can get, and for all of us to say his crazy bad name correctly.

Tom Paulson

Foege and his grand-daughter Olya on Vashon

 

  • Resultsbob

    Thanks, Tom.  I think everyone who is “important” in Global Health knows who Bill Foege is, and the contributions he has made.  But the rest of the world often does not.  Dr. Foege is such a brilliant, and yet self-effacing human being, I think a lot of people reading his story would think it was fiction.  He does speak on occasion, and is a terrific speaker.  Watch for the opportunity to hear him.  He is wonderful.

  • Jeff

    Bill is right…..health and poverty are related.  He’s also right that improved health can improve poverty.  However, he glosses over this and gives only a vague example of a healthy farmer’s ability to be more productive as his proof.  The problem is that better health alone cannot bring people out of poverty.  The global health industry cannot compete with the political forces that keep people in poverty and that is why decades of aid to Africa has not pulled Africa out of poverty.  I’m sorry to burst Bill’s bubble, but the answer to Tom Paulson’s question is that yes, better health does lead to people living in poverty for longer. 

    • http://humanosphere.kplu.org Tom Paulson

       Hi Jeff,

      I suspect Bill Foege would agree with you. It’s always difficult to boil down a person’s views to fit within a radio sound-bite or even a printed article. What Bill believes is that improving health is one of the most effective ways, not the only way, to reduce poverty. He would never say improving health is by itself going to win the war on poverty.

      In fact, when asked at a Seattle forum why poverty still exists Bill answered: “Poverty exists primarily because you and I benefit from it.”

      He went on to explain, to a packed audience at Seattle Town Hall, that poverty exists because we in the rich world exploit the developing world, because of the nature of commerce and what some would call structural violence. 

      That’s why I say Bill is “subversively influential.” He is actually saying quite provocative and discomfiting things. He just tends to say them softly and in muted terms, sounding a bit like Wilfred Brimley or Grandpa Walton, lulling you into thinking it’s all just the same old humanitarian pablum. Listen carefully to what he’s saying. It’s quite political.

      Cheers
      Tom

  • Terry

    Tom, you interviewed me 5 years ago. I’m so glad you ran this story. We had dinner with Bill a few months ago and he gave me a copy of the book, and he Still did the “aw shucks” bit. The world could use more like him. And you, mike urban, etc to raise global awareness

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Halasz-Christina/100001661755654 Halasz Christina

    I think we all caught the semantics on that one…

  • Gates Keepers

    Is the influence of individuals or the movements of institutions more important in making changes in health status for large populations. We would argue the latter.