Coordinator for Educational Programs
NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Leona Baumgartner and Mayor
Robert F. Wagner holding a child who received free oral polio
vaccination from the mobile free clinic behind them. May 25, 1962
IIn celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives salutes the life and legacy of Dr. Leona Baumgartner, Mayor Robert F. Wagner’s Commissioner of Health. The first woman appointed to this position, in 1954, she seized the platform to become a leader in public health locally and nationally. This was especially true in regards to the polio vaccine and the fluoridation of water. To read her speech about the distribution of the polio vaccine in New York City, click here.
Dr. Baumgartner was born in 1902 to Swiss immigrant parents. Raised in Lawrence, Kansas, where her father was a zoologist at the University of Kansas, she earned degrees there before studying at Yale, where she completed a Ph.D. in immunology in 1932 and became an M.D. in 1934. Instead of taking these skills to the laboratory or the hospital, Baumgartner became a public health pediatrician. She worked her way up in New York’s Department of Health, teaching health and hygiene, and coordinating health services in the city’s clinics, including venereal diseases, family planning, and parenting classes.
As Mayor Wagner’s Commissioner of Health, she oversaw the vaccination of millions of New Yorkers against polio rewrote the sanitary code, spoke regularly about public health to national television audiences, created New York’s Public Health Research Institute, and won the long battle to fluoridate New York’s water supply and sharply reduce tooth decay. After resigning as commissioner in 1962, she became the director of research at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she convinced President Johnson to include birth control in U.S. foreign aid programs to developing countries.
In addition to her speech on polio, you can learn more about Dr. Baumgartner from a biography at the National Library of Medicine and her obituary in The New York Times. She was also featured in the Archives’ You and Your Health: Public Health in New York City 4th grade curriculum as a "health hero."
If you want to learn more about Leona Baumgartner or the history of public health in New York City, please leave us a comment.