David Sencer, the longest-serving director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and one of the leaders of the U.S. contribution to the smallpox campaign, died Monday at age 86.
The New York Times quoted Bill Foege, Sencer’s friend and successor as CDC chief, now a senior adviser to the Gates Foundation:
“He said you couldn’t protect U.S. citizens from smallpox without getting rid of it in the world, and that was a new approach,” said Foege, who helped lead the smallpox effort in the field and developed the eradication strategy. “People in the field got all the praise, but he was the unsung hero.”
As a journalist who has covered public health issues for decades, I had many occasions to talk with Dave. He was not always well treated by the media and, in my opinion, was blamed for some public health mishaps he could not have anticipated or controlled.
The LA Times, for example, leads its obit by saying Sencer had a “career tainted with controversy” because of a swine flu vaccination effort in the 1970s. It’s funny how, especially with regard to public health, we tend to forget all the diseases and deaths that get prevented but notice every failure to protect.
Ward Cates, a former CDC colleague and now president of Family Health International, notes that most accounts of Sencer’s career also tend to ignore his bold political leadership aimed at advancing women’s health issues:
“Dave and (CDC top disease detective) Alex Langmuir created the field of reproductive health at CDC,” said Cates. “He particularly supported our controversially trailblazing work in the Abortion Surveillance Branch in the ’70s as we helped define the public health impact of Roe v. Wade.”
Jim Curran, another CDC veteran and now dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, was at the forefront when the AIDS epidemic first emerged. Sencer, as the New York Times article notes, is still criticized for not having done enough as NYC health commissioner. Curran says such scapegoating neglects the reality at the time:
“He served at the pleasure of Mayor Ed Koch,” who was not the most proactive in responding to the emerging AIDS crisis either, Curran said. “Dave Sencer took on the AIDS problem in New York City with no resources to speak of in a financially difficult time for the city and the country…. He was a true leader.”
I only met Dave in person a few years ago while attending an Atlanta reunion of smallpox warriors thanks to being snuck in by Foege (who also recently snuck me into the Gates Foundation’s new Seattle digs).
I can’t say I got to know Dave as well as I would have liked, but one of the things that stuck with me after chatting with him for only a short time was his unique combination of gentleness and steely determination. You could see both in his eyes and, when you asked a dumb question, catch just a hint of a smile as he would gently try to steer you back toward a more legitimate line of inquiry.
Just a few weeks ago, Dave sent me an email noting I had made a factual mistake in a post I did here on Humanosphere regarding some global health policy issue.
I thanked him but now wish I would have also said — what I felt — that I was honored he would take the time to help me correct the error.
Foege, to me, added that Sencer was one of the pioneers of what we today call “global health” because:
“Dave understood earlier than most that everyplace is both local and global, therefore global health was not something different than what he was doing every day.”