|A Family Affair
A new scholarship honors RSPH 'founding father' David Sencer
By Pam Auchmutey
“Our dad would talk about schistosomiasis, malaria, and other diseases,” says Steve, now deputy general counsel at Emory. “Other dads had a ceramic Georgia Bulldog on their coffee table. Ours had a two-foot-tall smallpox idol, which scared the daylights out of my friends. It was great.”
All kidding aside, Steve and his sisters Ann and Susan were among a host of family members—both personal and professional—who recently honored their father at the rsph. Now 83, David Sencer directed the CDC during the 1960s and 1970s and led the New York City Health Department during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. He is also a “founding father” of the RSPH who helped launch Emory’s master of community health program.
For these accomplishments, the rsph created the David J. Sencer MD, MPH, Scholarship Fund with support from the Sencer family. The endowment provides scholarship support for an MPH student who personifies the characteristics that Sencer demonstrated throughout his 36-year career. Scholarships will be awarded to state and local public health professionals who exemplify leadership and service in the field.
“This scholarship is a way to help someone in local public health,” notes William Foege, Presidential Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the RSPH and successor to Sencer as cdc director. “That’s where their knowledge and training funnel into another individual and then into another. That’s how Dave’s truth goes marching on.”
The scholarship embodies the same philosophy David Sencer had in mind for the community health program in the mid-1970s. Sencer was among those who devised a program to educate people to perform as leaders and problem solvers in community health and health care delivery.
Once the program was formed, Sencer asked Kathy Rufo, an educational specialist at cdc, to join Constance Conrad, an assistant professor in the medical school, in developing a curriculum for the master of community health program.
“One of the things we insisted on was that everyone who enrolled had to have worked in public health,” Sencer says. “We didn’t want people to come fresh out of one degree program and into another. We wanted to make sure they had experience in getting their hands dirty. We wanted them to learn about management and policy.”
|Change of heart
Sencer acquired those traits himself early on. When he entered medical school, he had his eye on entering private practice. That changed during a nearly two-year recovery from tuberculosis. “I read, listened to the radio, and developed more of a social conscience,” he says.
He eventually joined the U.S. Public Health Service, where he discovered the rewards of working with groups of people as opposed to individual patients. Sencer transferred to Atlanta in 1960 as assistant director of the cdc—known then as the Communicable Disease Center. In 1966, he was appointed director of a 20-year-old agency that until then was only national in scope.
During his first year as director, the cdc inherited a global program—its first—to eradicate malaria. The agency revamped the effort, shifting the focus from eradication to controlling death and morbidity. That same year, the cdc agreed to be the U.S. leader in eradicating smallpox and controlling measles in 20 countries in West and Central Africa. The last case of smallpox in West Africa was reported in 1970—a year ahead of schedule and under budget.
“People say that our father was famous, or notorious, for walking around the cdc and knowing what everybody was up to,” says Steve. “Those who worked hard apparently liked that because he knew what was going on and he cared. Dr. Foege says that when he was in West Africa working on the smallpox program, my dad never declined a request for staff or supplies. That put pressure on Dr. Foege to ask only for things that he really needed.”
In contrast to its dramatic entrance into global health, the cdc broadened its domestic programs gradually to include family planning (a controversial move at the time), maternal and child health, surveillance of noninfectious diseases and the subsequent discovery of small clusters of birth defects, and nutrition. In the early 1970s, the Smoking and Health Program and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health became part of the cdc, broadening the agency’s foundation in health communications and prevention.
Sencer remained steadfast in advocating cooperation between the cdc and state and local public health departments. “Health is a state rather than federal responsibility,” he says.
A case in point is the swine flu vaccination program in 1976. “The federal government provided funds and vaccines, but the states did the planning and work. The states did a great job, considering all of the problems that occurred,” says Sencer. “They vaccinated 43 million people in two months.”
Sencer led the cdc’s response to a number of major outbreaks and investigations. But none stirred up more controversy than the swine flu program. Difficulties ensued, including the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome, for which the vaccination program was halted. Washington officials subsequently asked for the cdc director’s resignation.
From the beginning, Sencer was prepared to take full responsibility for the swine flu program, which he knew would be difficult. “The buck did stop with him,” says Foege.
Not long ago, a friend of Sencer’s sent Steve a newspaper clipping of an interview with his father two days after he stepped down from the cdc in 1977. “At that point, despite all the attention focused on him personally, he emphasized how important it was for the cdc to continue its work,” says Steve. “He kept the institution in mind and remained devoted to state and local public health officers.
After Sencer became New York City health commissioner in 1982, he happened to drop in on an epidemiologist who told him about 20 cases of a new disease that came to be known as AIDS.
New York proved to be both a difficult and wonderful city to practice public health. For one, Sencer spent three days testifying in court before an unfriendly judge so that children with AIDS could remain in public school. He also convinced city officials that distributing clean needles to drug addicts would prevent the transmission of AIDS. He brought up the subject with Mayor Ed Koch more than once.
Recalls Sencer, “One night Ed called me at home and said, ‘David, I’ve been thinking about it. If you’re willing to be the goat, you write me a memo, and I’ll leak it. Let’s get it out on the table and let people start ventilating.’ The next day, we wrote him a memo, he leaked it, and everybody jumped on it. We eventually got a program started, and it’s now the largest in the country.”
After serving four years in New York, Sencer traveled the world as a public health consultant and eventually returned to Atlanta. He and his wife Jane live near Emory, where he has taught in the RSPH and the medical school. His daughters work in the health field—Ann as an oncology nurse practioner at Emory Crawford Long Hospital and Susan as a pediatric oncologist in Minnesota. Two summers ago, their father took part in a reunion of the cdc’s West Africa Smallpox Program. The reunion inspired him to begin building an
archive on global disease eradication, with help from the RSPH, Emory’s Woodruff Library and Global Health Institute, and the cdc.
“We have oral histories, pictures, artifacts, seminar proceedings, and more,” say Sencer. “We want to make sure they aren’t just preserved but are available for people to use.”
Percy Chastang Jr. conducted some research of his own when he learned he had been selected as the first Sencer Scholar. “I found a visionary and a trailblazer,” he says of Sencer.
Chastang coordinates adolescent health programs in Valdosta, Georgia. As a public health professional, Chastang sees himself as part of something larger. “I belong to this wonderful family of public health,” he says. “It’s good to know there are so many people standing behind me. If I can do a quarter of what Dr. Sencer did in his career, then I think I can do a remarkable job.”