- First woman Health Director in New York
- President of the National Health Council
- Associate Chief in the Children’s Bureau of Washington
- President of the American Public Health Association
- Degrees in Bacteriology, Public Health, and Medicine
- 1962: Samuel J. Crumbine Award for Outstanding Service in Public Health from the Kansas Public Health Association
Leona Baumgartner, University of Kansas graduate, is famous for becoming the first woman health director in New York. She also served as President of the National Health Council. Dr. Baumgartner was a “triple threat” scientist with degrees in Bacteriology, Public Health, and Medicine, and in her lifetime played the roles of researcher, educator, practicing physician, and administrator.
She was born in 1902 the daughter of a zoology professor at KU. She followed her father to the University to earn both her undergraduate degree and her graduate degree in Bacteriology. She once noted, “It may seem a little odd for a Kansas girl to wind up as health commissioner of a city the size of New York, but the Kansas education and experience have helped me here.”
Dr. Baumgartner began her career as a teacher of bacteriology at a community high school in Colby, Kansas and nursing education at Kansas City-Missouri Junior College. She followed with faculty appointments at Columbia University, Harvard, and Yale, the last of which she attended for her doctorate and medical school.
She first began work in New York City as a pediatrician with the Department of Health, and was later named Health Director of New York. She was the first woman to hold the position, and was known for her compassionate skill. During her tenure, she and 5000 loyal employees under her leadership inoculated 150,000 individuals against diphtheria, x-rayed 280,000 chests for tuberculosis, fluoridated the drinking water, controlled radiation levels, supplied extra provisions for premature babies, and closely inspected food establishments. These preventive measures create the cornerstone of public health interventions. To enforce the measures, she emphasized health education rather than regulatory policing. An award citation clarified the challenges of this position: “As one problem comes under control, others must be planned for and conquered; it is in the capacity of spotting these needs and progressing to tomorrow’s problems that Dr. Baumgartner is preeminent.”
Dr. Baumgartner later served as Associate Chief in the Children’s Bureau of Washington, the President of the American Public Health Association, and President of the National Health Council. She was considered the source for public health consultation, and may other countries also called on her for knowledge. She served at times as Adviser to the French Ministry of Health, Adviser to the Minister of Health in India, consulted for the Japanese government, and was a delegate on an official exchange mission for the US State Department to Russia (then the USSR). She was a visionary in the field of global public health, once declaring, “I wish we could carry out boldly a worldwide cooperative attack on disease and disability for all the peoples of the world…The best in American medicine equals what I have seen any place in the world. Why don’t we export some of our best products?”
In 1962, the Kansas Public Health Association awarded her with the Samuel J. Crumbine Award for Outstanding Service in Public Health, an extremely prestigious honor.