Four years before Ban Ki-moon made headlines around the world as the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Dr. Lee Jong-wook – known to his friends and colleagues as JW; as the Schweitzer of Asia to others –became the first Korean national to head a United Nations agency, the World Health Organization (WHO).
For 23 years with WHO, he set about improving the health of the poor on the international stage, eventually ascending to the role of director-general. Just three years into his appointment as the organization’s sixth director-general, he would meet his untimely death in Geneva on May 22, 2006 in the midst of preparing for the annual World Health Assembly, a meeting of the 192 Member States. A life of hard work and dedication cut short too soon, he was only 61 years old.
Dr. Lee’s work and vision as a world leader in public health were well reflected upon his death by then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in a statement: he was “a strong voice for the right of every man, woman and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people.”
True to this remark, Dr. Lee pledged to help the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. He tirelessly visited 60 countries in the three years of his Generalship; traveled to nearly every Member State in his career spent with WHO believing health interventions are a must to reduce poverty. He was convinced that disease risk was directly linked to a nation’s poverty level and focused on dealing with healthcare problems in poor countries.
According to Paul Benkimoun who wrote in his article, How Lee Jong-wook Changes WHO, for the Lancet in 2006, Dr. Lee was among the least likely to be elected director-general in 2003 of a six-name shortlist that included UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot.
Nonetheless, his experience spanning for more than 20 years at all levels, including technical, managerial and policy positions, proved to be his key strength coming into the top position at a time of global public health crisis, including the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, the emergence of H5N1 avian influenza virus and the highly politicized H.I.V. and AIDS treatment.
He knew the ins and outs of WHO better than most. Once elected, Dr. Lee tackled every challenge bravely, listened intently and grasped both the political and technical issues in public health. However, his tenure was not without difficulties and failures.
For instance, “3 by 5,” the AIDS treatment program targeting to deliver antiretroviral (ARV) therapy to 3 million people in developing countries, fell short of its goal and was widely criticized.
However, some saw his firm commitment to the program differently: Dr. William Foege, an international health leader at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, regarded the program’s failure as “insignificant compared to the courage to promote a vision of what the world should be doing.”
Also speaking of Dr. Lee’s willingness to take responsibility for failure, Dr. Jim Yong Kim, Dr. Lee’s close friend and one-time aide who now heads the World Bank Group as its 12th president, said that his leadership in a way “fundamentally changed people’s attitude to the possibility of treatment for a chronic disease in settings of poverty.”
From leading an effort to eradicate polio in the Western Pacific to implementing GDF to ensure access to tuberculosis medicines to his very last day working as director-general, he strived to make a difference in every program he managed and every life he touched, while maintaining a sense of purpose and his humor.
Survived by his wife and son, Dr. Lee’s legacy continues today, largely through the enduring mission of WHO. And in a more personal way, his wife Reiko is also carrying out his mission through her own work with non-governmental organization Mujeres Unidas (Women Together), a Partners In Health project in Peru, in the shantytown of Carabayllo. Dr. Lee Jong-wook was selected by Time Magazine in 2004 as one of the world’s 100 most influential people who shaped our lives.
Established in 2008, the Dr. Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health awards a person or persons, an institution or institutions, a governmental or non-governmental organization or organizations that have made an outstanding contribution to public health. Awarded once a year, the prize consists of a plaque from the founder and a sum of money, which will not exceed US$ 100,000. The Prize aims at rewarding work that has extended far beyond the call of normal duties, and it is not intended as a reward for excellent performance of duties normally expected of an official occupying a government position or of a governmental or intergovernmental institution. The 2014 Dr. Lee Jong-wook Memorial Prize for Public Health was awarded to the Czech Society of Cardiology, together with Professor Sinata KoullaShiro of Cameroon.