Maxwell School Honors Public Health Champion Helene Gayle for Impactful Career
April 1, 2022
She will receive the Maxwell Spirit of Public Service Award at the inaugural Awards of Excellence on April 7 in Washington, D.C.
Helene Gayle recalls a pivotal moment when, as a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, she attended her brother’s college graduation and heard a speech by epidemiologist D.A. Henderson, who co-led the global effort that eradicated smallpox.
“I went into medicine thinking I would be an individual practitioner because health is so critical, and I felt medicine gave me a tangible tool to give back to people and to society,” Gayle recalls. “But the desire to have an impact at a population level was always in the back of my mind. Hearing somebody talk about wiping a disease off the face of the Earth—you know, I was sold.”
Reorienting her career plans, Gayle completed a master’s degree at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (where Henderson was dean) in addition to her medical degree, and she has gone on to become a leader in public health and development. She spent more than 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working on HIV/AIDS prevention and other programs; directed global health initiatives at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and led the international humanitarian organization CARE for a decade. Since 2017, Gayle has served as president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, a regional hub for nonprofit organizations and philanthropy.
In recognition of these accomplishments, Gayle will receive the inaugural Maxwell Spirit of Public Service Award, which honors individuals whose contributions have brought widespread impact and reflect the ideals of the Maxwell School. The award will be presented April 7 in Washington, D.C., as part of the first annual Maxwell Awards of Excellence.
“We are thrilled to honor Dr. Gayle,” says Maxwell Dean David M. Van Slyke. “As an expert in public health and development, she has made an enduring contribution on a range of issues both within the U.S. and around the globe. She embodies Maxwell’s commitment to public service and engaged citizenship.”
While the local focus of The Chicago Community Trust seems like a shift from the global scope of organizations like CARE and the Gates Foundation, Gayle says the underlying issues have much in common. Chicago, she points out, has a 30-year gap in life expectancy between its wealthiest enclaves and poorest neighborhoods. “If I were to think about the through line in my career, it really is the issue of equity and social justice,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t recognize that at home we have some of the same gaping inequities that we see internationally.”
Gayle has received 18 honorary degrees and serves on numerous public company and nonprofit boards, including The Coca-Cola Co., Organon, Palo Alto Networks, the Brookings Institution and the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. She recently received the Chicago Mayor’s Medal of Honor for her work on COVID relief and recovery, and she has been named one of Forbes’ “100 Most Powerful Women.”
The recognition from Maxwell, she says, is especially meaningful. “Although I’ve done so many things in my life, at my core, I feel like I’m a public servant,” she says. “To be given an award that recognizes public service—it doesn’t get much better than that.”
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