Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, interviews Helene Gayle, MD, MPH, during the annual Harrington Lecture at the Jacobs School. 

Gayle’s Harrington Lecture Offers Insights on Buffalo, Education, Global Health

By Bill Bruton

Published June 20, 2023

Buffalo native Helene Gayle, MD, MPH, an internationally known expert on health and humanitarian issues, spoke on a wide range of topics during the 2023 Harrington Lecture June 3 at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Brashear Interviews Buffalo Native

“So often our medical schools are islands within their communities and neighborhoods. The Jacobs School has been one that has tried to be much more community oriented.”
Helene Gayle, MD, MPH
2023 Harrington Lecture speaker

Gayle was interviewed by Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. The talk was part of the UB Alumni Weekend.

“On behalf of the entire University at Buffalo community, it is my pleasure to welcome you to today’s Harrington Lecture and distinguished alumni awards,” said Satish K. Tripathi, PhD, UB’s president. “Dr. Gayle has dedicated a great deal of her remarkable career to health equity and social justice. Thank you for the work you have done worldwide.”

Brashear welcomed the alumni, and proudly told of the Jacobs School’s accomplishments and aspirations. 

More than 350 people from 26 states attended the UB Alumni Weekend. In all, they raised more than $700,000 to fund scholarships including the inaugural Jonathan D. Daniels MD ’98 & Family Memorial Fund that supports students of color and others who are underrepresented in medicine. In addition, more than 70 were golden alumni — including the honored Class of 1973. Gayle’s cousin, Kenneth Gayles, MD, a local cardiologist, was among this group of graduates celebrating 50 years or more at UB.

“Good morning to our alumni, students, donors, fellow deans, faculty, staff, family members and guests,” Brashear said. “It’s so exciting to welcome you all today to our Harrington Lecture and to our beautiful state-of-the-art building. We are so glad you came here to see all that is going on in Buffalo.”

“Welcome back Dr. Gayle. It is wonderful to have you here in Buffalo again. You have had an extraordinarily impressive career, both in the public and non-profit sectors, focusing on public health and equity,” Brashear added. “We are all excited to learn more about you, your journey to becoming a physician, important leadership lessons, and advice to our students in the audience and even young professionals.”

After the interview with Brashear, Gayle also took questions from the following:

  • James Marks, MD ’73, former executive vice president for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and a former colleague of Gayle’s at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • The Rev. Kinzer M. Pointer, pastor of Liberty Missionary Baptist Church and an instructor at the Jacobs School
  • Gale R. Burstein, MD ’90, MPH, Erie County commissioner of health and clinical professor of pediatrics at the Jacobs School
  • Moriah Martindale, Jacobs School Class of 2026, current president of the local chapter of Student National Medical Association (SNMA)
  • Jamal B, Williams, PhD ’22, assistant professor of psychiatry
  • Maxine Hayes, MD ’73, nationally recognized maternal and child health expert and the former state health officer for the Washington State Department of Health

From CDC to Spelman College President

Gayle, who spent her distinguished career dealing with global health issues prior to her current role as the president of Spelman College — a historically Black women’s college and a global leader in the education of women of African descent — offered unique insights on a number of topics.

“It’s wonderful to be back in Buffalo among friends and family,” Gayle said. “This is a great homecoming.”

She detailed her fascinating career journey.

Gayle became interested in medical school when she went to her brother’s college commencement. The speaker was Donald Ainslie (D.A.) Henderson, MD, MPH, who helped lead the international smallpox eradication program.

“It gave me the idea of public health and what you can accomplish and how you can do something tremendous,” she said.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Barnard College, she went on to get her medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and a master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University, before going on to the CDC.

“I went to the Centers for Disease Control for a two-year training program. I thought I’d stay for two years and stayed for 20,” Gayle said. “The CDC was a fascinating place to learn about public health and gave me a very broad background in a variety of subjects.”

In the process, she became an expert on HIV/AIDS.

“I became drawn to HIV because it was clear early on that it impacted populations that were marginalized. HIV gave me the opportunity to focus on a very important public health disease, but also one that was linked to other societal factors as well — those that we now call the social determinants of health,” Gayle said.

From there she was recruited to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to deal with global health, especially AIDS.

“At that time all the global health team could fit around one table, now they have thousands of people on that team,” she said.

For almost a decade, Gayle was president and CEO of CARE, a leading international humanitarian organization that worked on eradicating global poverty, with a focus on girls and women.

“We know what it means if you can make a difference in the life of a girl or a woman and how that makes a virtuous cycle for a family,” Gayle said.

She served as president and CEO of The Chicago Community Trust, one of the nation’s oldest and largest community foundations, from October 2017 to June 2022. Under her leadership, the Trust adopted a new strategic focus on closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap in the Chicago region.

She then took the reins as the 11th president of Spelman College on July 1, 2022.

“It was hard to say no to the offer when you feel like it could be contributing to the next generation of women who want to change the world,” Gayle said.

Expanding Opportunities for People of Color

In the lecture, she talked about ways to increase the percentage of Black male medical students, which is even smaller than it was in 1978, and lauded the Jacobs School for proactively addressing the issue.

“Buffalo is doing a pretty good job of recruiting underrepresented minorities. Congratulations on that. First and foremost is thinking early on in the pipeline. If you’re just presented the possibility of medical school when someone is in college, it’s too late,” Gayle said. “You need to work with communities early on to make sure that particularly for young Black men, that they see Black men who are also in the medical fields, that they see somebody they can relate to who can be a role model. It’s the intentionality and making sure that you’re thinking as early as possible, exposing people to medical careers.”

She talked of the importance of organizations and mentors for people of color, especially women.

“I was national president of SNMA back in medical school. It’s actually where I met my husband, so I have fond memories of SNMA. It’s always important to be well prepared, have a great network — that’s why I think SNMA is so important — because you will have tough times, times when you feel you are underestimated or you feel being a woman of color is not valued,” she said. “It’s important to have colleagues and organizations like SNMA that you can go back to and get fortified and strengthened. But even more is believing in yourself, and surrounding yourself with people who believe in you as well.”

“At the CDC, we had several elementary schools that were pipeline schools where we exposed students to public health. That’s where it needs to start. And the importance of mentors and role models can’t be underestimated,” she added.

Medical Schools: Be Active in the Community

Gayle, who was also in Buffalo last month for the remembrance for those killed in the Tops shooting, had praise for the work the Jacobs School has done to involve itself with community groups in the Fruit Belt neighborhood to improve living conditions for residents of the area.

“So often our medical schools are islands within their communities and neighborhoods. The Jacobs School has been one that has tried to be much more community oriented,” Gayle said. “We’ve got to do more so that our bright young people are getting the opportunities so they want to do something with their lives, and have a sense of hope.”

“For far too long, large institutions have assumed that they have the answers, and set up programs with different opportunities, but not with community input,” Gayle said. “I just feel it is so critical that before we come in with our programs, that we are actually talking to a range of community people and not necessarily assuming we have the answer and to see things from their perspective. With that, and with the right resources and the right capabilities, one can do incredible things.”

Emphasizes Social Determinants of Health

She emphasized the social determinants of health — how you live, work and play.

“Do you have safety in your neighborhoods? Do you have high quality education? Do you have access to nutritious food? Do you have access to a living income? All of these things are critical so that your basic life needs are taken care of,” Gayle said. “It was important when the CDC director made the statement that racism is a public health emergency. If we look at the history of race in America, it’s very clear that many of the social determinants of health are a challenge for people of color and communities of color.”

“We have also seen that racism in and of itself is an important factor in health. We’re just starting to understand that,” Gayle added. “Racism is rooted in our systems, and it’s so longstanding. But I think if we want to improve health, we also have to start thinking about how to attack the systems of racism that exist. If we do that, we’ll not only improve their health, you’ll also have a healthier country.”

She also encouraged those in attendance and watching via videoconference to make their voices known.

Knows the Strengths of Her Hometown

Gayle knows about the virtues of Buffalo.

“Buffalo is a great city. When I left Buffalo, it was on the decline. Over the last couple of decades, Buffalo has really started moving in the right direction. The population is starting to come back. The cost of living is low. There are few places left in the nation where you can buy a good house that is affordable to many,” Gayle said. “There are so many things about the quality of life here that people don’t realize — the friendliness, the neighborliness. Buffalo obviously has its challenges and is still a deeply divided city in many ways, but it’s a lifestyle that many people could appreciate.”

“Buffalo has always been a friendly city where people care about each other, even though there have been some horrendous situations like what happened at Tops last year. There’s a real warmth in the city. But there’s also a lot of division,” she said. “I would love to see Buffalo continue to come together more and more as a unified community, so that everybody has the ability to feel that warmth that is so much a part of Buffalo. And that everybody has the opportunity to realize their full potential.”

She also spoke about the importance of leadership, and what makes a good leader.

“Ultimately, one of the best skills of a leader is listening, being willing to listen and learn from those around you. That can take you a long way,” Gayle said. “It is being open to new opportunities. It’s being able to do something that might be described as a risk, not staying on the prescribed path. Keep broadening your skill set.”  

Risks are Worth Taking

She encouraged students that risks are sometimes worth taking.

“If anybody had told me when I was in medical school that I would end up being the president of a college, and doing all these other things in between, I would never have predicted it,” Gayle said. “I tell students, know what your why is, know what it is that makes you feel like you come alive, what’s your passion, what’s your North Star, and stick with that.”

“Don’t be wedded to any one path, because you never know what’s going to come your way. Sometimes, if you’re too rigidly focused on it has to be step one, step two, step three, you’re going to miss some of the opportunities that really give you the chance to stretch, to grow, and to think differently about your career,” she added. “Mine has not been a linear path, but I’ve been happy to continue to use my skills in a way that I hope made an impact and makes a difference.”

Janessa Givens Daniels accepts the Medical Alumni Association’s President’s Award on behalf of her family from Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, left, and Lori Luzi, MD, right. 

Alumni Daniels, Glick, Fraser Honored

The late Jonathan D. Daniels, MD, who died in a tragic house fire last July 4 at his North Buffalo home along with two of his adult daughters: Jordan, a 2022 graduate of the UB School of Management; and Jensen, a 2021 graduate of Buffalo State College, was recognized with the 2023 Medical Alumni Association’s President’s Award.

Daniels, a Jacobs School Class of 1998 graduate and former president of the Medical Alumni Association, was associate director of admissions at the Jacobs School.

“Dr. Daniels was a wonderful colleague, physician and beloved member of the school. He was a powerful force for good on many levels for our school and in the community and is sorely missed,” said Lori Luzi, MD ’88, president of the Medical Alumni Association.

His wife, Janessa Givens Daniels, accepted the award on behalf of their family. This year, more than $200,000 has been raised in support of the Jonathan Daniels Scholarship.

“His legacy lives on and his scholarship will help support the need to help make medical education more affordable and more diverse and help us to recruit scholars from underrepresented communities and serve our local pediatric community,” Luzi said.

Myron Glick, MD ’93, was honored as a 2023 distinguished medical alumnus. He is founder of the Jericho Road Community Health Center, which has had a profound impact on the Buffalo community, providing health care for all and supporting Buffalo’s refugee community.

“We honor his distinguished career as a model physician, grassroots activist, exemplary mentor and a great humanitarian,” Brashear said.

Claire Fraser, PhD ’81, was honored as the 2023 distinguished biomedical alumnus. She was not able to attend the ceremony.

“We recognize her groundbreaking accomplishments as a global leader and a visionary in the fields of genomic medicine, microbiology and immunology,” Brashear said.

Luzi was honored with a plaque for her service to the Medical Alumni Association.

The event was made possible by the D.W. Harrington Lecture Endowment. The Harrington is UB’s longest-running lecture series, established in 1896.

The event is a collaboration between partners in the Jacobs School, the Medical Alumni Association, Office of Medical Advancement and the Office of Graduate Medical Education.