Lee Jong-wook

Lee Jong-wook (1945–2006) was the Director-General of the World Health Organization for three years.

He was born 12 April 1945 in Seoul, South Korea. Lee obtained a medical degree from Seoul National University, then enrolled at the University of Hawaii to study public health, earning a Master's degree. He joined the WHO in 1983, working on a variety of projects including the Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunizations and Stop Tuberculosis. He began his term as Director-General of WHO on 21 July 2003, having been elected two months before. He was the first Korean to lead an international agency. He died on 22 May 2006 - while in office - in Geneva, Switzerland, following surgery for a blood clot on his brain (a subdural hematoma). He was posthumously awarded the Hibiscus Cordon (Grand Cross) of the Order of Civil Merit by the South Korean government.

In 2004, he was one of the 100 people who shapes our lives and most powerful people in the world by Time Magazine.


He is the third son in a family of six children; he has three brothers and two sisters. Two brothers are professors. His wife is Reiko Kaburaki Lee and the couple has one son, Tadahiro Lee. His name is Lee ChungHo in Korean. Reiko continues to volunteer in Peru helping poor women and children.

Medical volunteer work

Lee took care of leprosy patients in Anyang, South Korea when he was studying medicine. There were few medical facilities set up at the time and he worked in a volunteer capacity.

He met and later married Kaburaki Reiko, a Japanese woman who visited Korea in order to help out there.

In 1981, Lee and his wife went together to American Samoa to help the poor. In Samoa, he worked in the Lyndon B. Johnson tropical medical center from June 26, 1981 to May 26, 1983. He was known as the Schweitzer of Asia.

WHO career

He worked at the World Health Organisation (WHO), at country, regional and headquarter levels for 23 years. His work in WHO started in 1983 when he worked with leprosy in Fiji.

He started his work as an advisor on leprosy, and later also treated tuberculosis and promoted the vaccination of children against preventable diseases.

In 1994, Lee moved to Geneva to work at WHO headquarters as chief in prevention and vaccines. In 1995, he was nicknamed Vaccine Czar according to Scientific American.

  • 1983-2006 : Staff of WHO
  • 1994-98 : Director in Global Programme for Vaccines and Immunization, and Executive Secretary, Children's Vaccine Initiative
  • 1998-99 : Senior Policy Adviser to 5th General, Gro Harlem Brundtland
  • 1999-2000 : Special Representative of the Director-General
  • 2003-2006 : Director-General of WHO

Director General

He had said that global efforts to control the HIV/AIDS pandemic would be the right course that would give meaning to his tenure as director-general of the agency.

The 3 by 5 policy which was the basic idea of Dr. Lee was largely criticized by many concerned people. Many, including Joep Lange, the president of the International Aids Society, had a comment that the project was “totally unrealistic”. Médecins sans Frontières, also expressed similar reservations toward Lee's plan.

He worked tirelessly, visiting 60 countries in the three years of his Generalship including Darfur, Sudan, sites of the Indian Ocean tsunami, Madagascar, Mauritius. He was famed as a man of action during this time. His adventurous spirit led him to "experience more, see more, and do more," said his son Tadahiro.

After his death, several people expressed deep grief. Secretary General of United Nations at that time, Kofi Annan mentioned

The world has lost a great man today. He was a strong voice for the right of every man, woman, and child to health prevention and care, and advocated on behalf of the very poorest people.

President George W. Bush of United States said

Dr. Lee worked tirelessly to improve the health of millions of people, from combating tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS to his aggressive efforts to eradicate polio. He provided tremendous leadership to the international community as it confronted the challenges of the 21st century, including the threat of an influenza pandemic. Dr. Lee's outreach to world leaders and entities increased awareness of potentially devastating public health dangers.

Memorial award

The South Korean government officially announced the establishment of the a Memorial Prize in Dr. Lee's memory. After his death, You Si min, the Minister of Sanitation & Health of the Republic of Korea, officially revealed the plans concerning the new awards and urged other nations and persons concerned to participate at a meeting of WHO in 2007. Mr.Lee Sung-joo, who is permanent representative of the Republic of Korea, spoke of the award in Dr. Lee's memory to motivate and inspire young leaders aspiring to be the next Dr. Lee Jong-wook.

Starting in 2009, the awards would be given for mainly the two fields "Young Leadership" and "Contributor of health management" (especially for epidemics) at the annual assembly of World Health Organization which takes place in May each year.

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