Lee Jong-Wook Biography

Dr. Lee Jong-Wook (1945–2006) was the sixth general-director of the World Health Organization (WHO), the international health agency of the United Nations (U.N.). When elected to the post, Lee became the first South Korean to head a U.N. agency. Trained as a physician, he became an expert on the treatment of leprosy. Later, as head of WHO, he focused on immunization and disease prevention. During his 23 years with the agency he demonstrated strong leadership and exerted a substantial impact on health concerns on a global scale. In 2004 Time magazine named him as one of the world's one hundred most influential people.

Lee was born on April 12, 1945, in Seoul, South Korea. He was the son of a civil servant, and his family endured great hardships during the Korean War (1950–53). During the conflict, Lee, along with his two brothers and his mother, traveled on foot from his home in Seoul to Taegu to find his father, who had been exiled to a remote post. The grueling trip encompassed 400 miles and took nearly three months. During the punishing trek, Lee developed an appreciation of the sufferings of refugees.

After the 1953 cease fire, Lee's father and brothers became politicians. But Lee, at the urging of his mother, decided to become a doctor. He earned his medical degree at Seoul National University's College of Medicine. After Lee graduated, his mother further encouraged him to become a plastic surgeon, as it would be a more lucrative medical direction. But Lee had become deeply interested in the disease of leprosy, as he perceived the profound social and emotional impact the disease wrought, and he started his medical career serving a leper colony in South Korea.

While working at the colony Lee met his wife, Reiko, a Japanese woman who worked with a Catholic organization to help care for leprosy sufferers. The couple had one son, Tadahiro. Also during this early stage in his career, Lee decided to change his focus from private practice to public health, as he thought he would be able to help more people.

Began Long Association with WHO

Eventually Lee and his small family left South Korea, so that he could continue his education in the United States. In 1981 he earned his master's degree in epidemiology and public health from the University of Hawaii's School of Public Health, where he specialized in tropical diseases. In 1983 Lee began his long association with the World Health Organization (WHO) by accepting a position as a leprosy consultant at the agency's regional office in Fiji. A year later, WHO appointed him as a team leader for leprosy control in the South Pacific region. Lee never intended to remain with WHO for a long time, but he ended up spending most of the rest of his career with the organization.

In 1986 Lee transferred to WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office, located in Manila in the Philippines. At first he was involved in the Regional Leprosy Control Program. Later he became Regional Adviser on Chronic Diseases. Over the course of Lee's early involvement with WHO, officials at the organization's headquarters, located in Geneva, Switzerland, took favorable note of his work. In 1994 Lee was selected to serve as head of WHO's Global Program on Vaccines and Immunizations (GVP). In accepting the position, he moved to Geneva to work in WHO's home office.

At the time, Lee also served as executive secretary of the Children's Vaccine Initiative, a global campaign designed to foster development of new and more effective vaccines. Lee's specific goals were to increase access to vaccinations for all children, thereby ridding the world of poliomyelitis (polio) and other childhood diseases that were preventable through vaccines. He proved a strong leader and developed an innovative approach to working with the drug manufacturing industry, initiating discussions with companies to determine how they could develop vaccines to specifically treat diseases that primarily affected developing nations.

Lee's other strategic initiatives included a review of the immediate and long-term mission of GPV, and an increase in funding from $15 million to nearly $70 million between 1994 and 1998. He also introduced management reforms that would ensure the highest technical competence of staff as well as increase the number of women in professional posts. Lee's leadership had a substantial impact on polio eradication in the western Pacific region. The number of reported polio cases decreased from 5963 in 1990 to 700 in 1994 to nearly none by 2004. Because of Lee's successful efforts, Scientific American magazine called him the "Vaccine Czar" in 1997.

Assumed Leadership of Tuberculosis Program

In 1998, when Norwegian physician Go Brundtland became head of WHO, she chose Lee to be a senior policy advisor and to serve as her special representative. He held these positions until 2000, when Brundtland selected Lee to head WHO's Stop TB program. His mission, as the program's name indicates, was to stem the worldwide spread of tuberculosis.

In assuming the post, Lee took over a program that lacked a comprehensive global strategy and was beset with organizational problems. To address the problems, Lee placed WHO at the center of the program and helped install proven treatments. He drew on his previous managerial experience with the GVP to develop a complex global part- nership called the Global Drug Facility (GDF), an initiative designed to increase access to tuberculosis drugs. The partnership included more than 250 international members, including WHO member countries, donors, non-governmental organizations, pharmaceutical industry representatives, and foundations. This coalition came to be recognized as one of the most successful health related public-private partnerships. The Boston Globe credited Lee with having provided superior leadership and political skills in order to build a consensus and "spur former antagonists to work together." The GDF would serve as a model for other initiatives seeking to increase access to drugs for other so-called diseases of poverty such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.

Elected to Lead WHO

On January 28, 2003, Lee was nominated by WHO's executive board to head the organization. Bruntland's term was ending in July of that year, and she decided not to seek a second term. On May 21, an executive committee of the United Nations elected Lee to the post of director-general for a five-year term. Lee became WHO's sixth director-general and the first South Korean to head a U.N. agency. He began his term on July 21, 2003.

Lee's election came as a surprise. He was considered the long shot in a field of five candidates for the post, as he was the only candidate who lacked experience as a minister in a governmental department or as head of a U.N. agency. Further, it was felt that he lacked sufficient political strength to work with heads of state to promote a global agenda. However, Lee disproved that belief by convincing 53 members of the U.S. Congress to write letters of support for his bid to Colin Powell and Tommy Thompson, who were then cabinet members in the George W. Bush administration. As a result of this personal campaign, Lee won the election by a narrow margin.

Established Influential WHO Agenda

At the beginning of his term, Lee established a set of clearly defined goals. First, he wanted to improve international monitoring of infectious diseases to help control outbreaks of afflictions such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). To meet this goal, he sought increased funding from some countries to enhance disease monitoring via increased staff and training. Second, he sought to develop a better plan for fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in underprivileged countries saddled with poor health care systems. To do this, he created a team focused on improving the agency's role in the battle against these diseases, particularly in Africa. Indeed, Lee's WHO leadership tenure was marked by his strong focus on healthcare problems in poor countries, as he firmly believed that disease risk was directly linked to a nation's poverty level.

Despite his well-defined agenda, Lee was compelled to shift his focus due to developing international healthcare concerns such as the widely publicized outbreak of the avian flu throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe, as well natural catastrophes such as the 2004 Asian tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan. Still, he remained mindful of his priorities, which also included reducing the world's nicotine dependence. He hoped to accomplish this by increasing the number of smoke-free areas in the world and by advocating for an anti-tobacco treaty that would increase taxes on tobacco products, which would, in turn, encourage more people to refrain from smoking.

He also kept sight of the Millennium Development Goals established in the year 2000 by the U.N. These included reduction of global childhood malnutrition by 50 percent as well as a decrease in the percentage of the world's population forced to subsist on a one-dollar-per day existence. Specifically, he hoped to see the number reduced to 15 percent by 2015.

In addition, his plans included increasing the agency's global relevance, something he hoped to achieve by directing 75 percent of WHO's resources toward regional and national application. To do this, he implemented several new programs including one called the Epidemic Intelligence Service, where epidemiologists were trained to fight localized disease outbreaks and help developing countries battle the AIDS and Ebola viruses. He based the program on one established by the U.S. Government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During his tenure, Lee released several landmark publications, including the annual World Health Reports, which were intended to generate strong response to the major health challenges facing the world. These challenges included the AIDS treatment gap, the burden of suffering and death faced by pregnant women and children, the healthcare workforce crisis present in poor countries, and healthcare as it related to issues of peace and human security.

Overall, Lee assumed a forward-thinking approach with a vision that addressed potential, and even inevitable, problems. In the absence of such a futuristic approach, he believed, the world would face an eventual "day of reckoning." He firmly believed that concrete steps could be taken to ensure the welfare of new generations. One of these steps involved universal access to treatment.

Died Suddenly After Suffering a Stroke

Lee had a worldview that was compassionate and empathetic, but unfortunately he did not see his efforts come to fruition. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 22, 2006, in Geneva, at the U.N.'s European headquarters. His death occurred during the first day of the World Health Assembly, the annual conference for WHO members. Two days earlier he had suffered a stroke while attending an assembly function. He died after undergoing surgery for a blood clot in the brain. He was 61 years old and had served three years of his five-year term as WHO's director-general.

During the assembly's opening session, attendees observed a two-minute silence while flags flew at half mast. His funeral was held May 24 in Geneva. More than a thousand people attended. Eulogies were given by his son, Tadahiro, by his top aide, William Kean, and by Rhyu Simin, minister of health of Lee's native Korea.

Friends and colleagues recalled Lee as a friendly man who possessed an endearing, self-deprecating wit and a quirky sense of humor that often put people at ease, a characteristic that had often proved useful in diffusing tense situations. He reportedly he had a wide range of intellectual interests and a voracious appetite for knowledge. A multi-linguist, he spoke Korean, English, French, and Japanese. He enjoyed classical music, the theater, Shakespeare's plays, and other examples of great literature.

Lee was survived by his wife and son, and by two brothers and one sister.


Honolulu Advertiser , May 25, 2006.

Newsletter of the Pan American Health Organization , August 2006.

Newsmakers , Issue 1, Thomson Gale, 2005.

The Scotsman , May 24, 2006.

Time , April 26, 2004.


"Dr. Lee Jong-wook: Biography," World Health Organization , http://www.who.int/dg/lee/biography/en/index.html (December 21, 2006).

"A tribute to Dr Lee Jong-wook, Director-General of WHO," World Health Organization , http://www.who.int/dg/lee/tribute/en/index.html (December 21, 2006).

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