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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lee Jong-wook went from UH to helm of WHO

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer


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Friends and colleagues of Dr. Lee Jong-wook are remembering the University of Hawai'i graduate as a tireless worker who sought to improve health conditions for everyone.

After receiving his master's degree at the UH School of Public Health in 1981, Lee began a long career with the World Health Organization. In 2003, he was elected as the WHO's sixth director-general.

Lee, who was a leader in the fight against tuberculosis, polio and other diseases, died Monday in Geneva after undergoing surgery for a blood clot in the brain. Lee was 61.

"He was a visionary public health physician who combined modesty with perseverance in everything that he did in his 61 years of life," said Dr. Jerrold Michael, former dean of the School of Public Health and an instructor of Lee's.

Bruce Anderson, the state's former health director, received his doctorate from the School of Public Health and was a student under Lee. Anderson said Lee was a "great statistician" who was a mentor to many.

"He could always find time to help me and other students with problems and was certainly respected throughout the public health community," Anderson said.

Lee was born on April 12, 1945, in Seoul, South Korea. He received his medical degree at Seoul National University and moved to Hawai'i to study public health because he felt he would be "able to do more good that way," according to Michael.

In 1983, Lee began his long career with the World Health Organization when he accepted a position in the agency's regional office in Fiji. From 1990 to 1994, he was credited with reducing the number of reported polio cases in the Western Pacific region from 6,000 to 700 cases.

In 1994 he moved to WHO's headquarters in Geneva as director of the Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunization and executive secretary of the Children's Vaccine Initiative. Lee helped to increase funding for immunization programs and was dubbed the "Vaccine Czar" of WHO.

As head of WHO, Lee led the battle against SARS, AIDS and avian flu.

While attending a function in Geneva on Saturday, Lee became ill and underwent surgery later that day. He died two days later.

Michael said Lee's work will have long-lasting effects in many areas of the world.

"Success in life has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It's what you do for others that is worth remembering," Michael said. "For that reason, Dr. J.W. Lee's life will remain as a blessing for all citizens of the world community."

Lee is survived by his wife, Reiko, and son, Tad.

Funeral services are pending.

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.