A History of New York State's Health Commissioners

Photo of Dr. Lewis

Dr. Lewis (1901-1904)

Dr. Lewis was born in Alfred, New York in 1846. He served in the Navy during the final year of the Civil War and studied medicine at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City. He became a surgeon in New York City and the Chair of Special Surgery at the New York Post-Graduate Medical School. Governor Levi Morton appointed Dr. Lewis president of the State Board of Health, which was created by the Governor to investigate public nuisance reports and address public health issues. The State Board of Health was later dismantled and replaced with the State Department of Health. Dr. Lewis was New York State's first Commissioner of Health and served under Governor Benjamin B. Odell, Jr.

Under his leadership, Dr. Lewis oversaw the Division of Laboratories, made up of the Bureau of Pathology and Bacteriology, the Bureau of Chemistry and the Antitoxin Laboratory, which is the forerunner of today's Wadsworth Center. During his tenure, New York began mass production of antitoxin for diphtheria. The Antitoxin Lab later became Wadsworth Center. It was located on Yates St., Albany, where horses were kept and used to produce antitoxin.

Dr. Lewis organized the first statewide conference of municipal health officers, setting the stage for a strong state-local partnership in public health that still exists today. He died in 1919.

Photo of Eugene H. Porter, M.D.

Eugene H. Porter, M.D. (1905-1913)

Dr. Porter was born in Ghent, New York in 1856. He studied at Cornell University and graduated from New York Medical Homeopathic College and Hospital. He was editor of the North American Journal of Homeopathy, general secretary of the American Institute, and an attending physician at Laura Franklin Free Hospital for Children and Hahnemann Hospital.

Dr. Porter was appointed Commissioner of Health by Governor Frank W. Higgins. Under Dr. Porter's leadership, the Department established county tuberculosis hospitals and created the New York State Public Health Council, a precursor of the Public Health and Health Planning Council.

In 1910, Dr. Porter determined that disease carriers should not be kept in isolation and freed Mary Mallon ("Typhoid Mary") from quarantine, with the promise to help her find suitable employment as a domestic, but not a cook. When the original Antitoxin Laboratory on Yates St., Albany began falling into disrepair. Dr. Porter petitioned the state for financial assistance to relocate the laboratory's animals to a farm. He finally succeeded in May 1913, when the Department purchased a farm in the Town of Guilderland, which later became Griffin Laboratory. Dr. Porter died in 1929.

Photo of Hermann M. Biggs, M.D.

Hermann M. Biggs, M.D. (1914-1923)

Dr. Biggs was born in 1859 in Trumansburg, New York. He received his medical degree from Bellevue Hospital Medical College and went on to earn a global reputation for his work on the science of bacteriology in the prevention of infectious disease.

Before joining the state Department of Health, Dr. Biggs was New York City's chief medical officer for 26 years. He was responsible for the first use of diphtheria antitoxin in the United States. His model prevention and control program cut the country's death rate from Tuberculosis in half between 1900 and 1920. He also organized the world's first municipal bacteriological laboratories for the New York City Health Department.

Prior to becoming state Health Commissioner, Dr. Biggs chaired a commission that called for a reorganization of the state Health Department and asked for new laboratories to do original research. Dr. Biggs also chaired the commission created to revise the Public Health Law of New York State. He was appointed the state Commissioner of Health and chairman of the Public Health Council by Governor Martin H. Glynn.

Dr. Biggs was a champion of laboratory science, a pioneer of prevention and control, and an architect of modern public health laws. As state Commissioner of Health, Dr. Biggs created local public health laboratories, increased the number of public health nurses and carried out public health education on an unprecedented scale. Under his leadership, the Department expanded its activities to include child hygiene, and the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of Tuberculosis. During his tenure, the Department was involved in fighting the statewide polio epidemic of 1916 and the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Dr. Biggs's motto was "Public health is purchasable. Within natural limitations a community can determine its own death-rate." His faith in the germ theory of medicine and the new science of bacteriology shaped public health in New York City and New York State for generations to come. In 1920, he was appointed medical director of the General League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, Switzerland. In addition, he was knighted by the King of Spain for services in preventive medicine. Dr. Biggs was the author of The Administrative Control ofTuberculosis (1904) and co-author of An Ideal Health Department (1913). He served as the Commissioner until his death in 1923.

Photo of Matthias Nicoll, Jr., M.D.

Matthias Nicoll, Jr., M.D. (1924-1929)

Dr. Nicoll was born in New York City in 1868. He received his medical degree from Columbia University and worked for 13 years at Willard Parker Hospital in New York City. He began his career in public health as Chief of the Division of Diagnosis of the New York City Department of Health. He held several positions in the state Department of Health, including Director of the Division of Public Health Education. Upon the death of Dr. Hermann M. Biggs, Dr. Nicoll was appointed the state Commissioner of Health by Governor Alfred E. Smith.

Under Dr. Nicoll's leadership, the Department launched a five-year campaign to control diphtheria in New York, which significantly reduced morbidity and mortality. Dr. Nicoll also led a professional education campaign for physicians doing obstetrical work to reduce maternal mortality, efforts to prevent or overcome stream pollution from sewage, and initiatives to purify a large number of water supplies. Dr. Nicoll was a pioneer in the effective instraspinal method of treating lockjaw with tetanus antitoxin.

In 1929, he submitted his resignation to Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt in order to organize the Westchester County Health Department, with the goal of creating a county agency that could serve as an example both in New York and the rest of the country. Dr. Nicoll died in 1941, less than a week after the Westchester County Health Department celebrated its 10th anniversary, during which state and federal officials hailed the agency as a model.

Photo of Thomas Parran, Jr., M.D.

Thomas Parran, Jr., M.D. (1930-1936)

Dr. Parran was born in St. Leonard, Maryland in 1892. He received his medical degree from Georgetown University. He was an Assistant Surgeon General for the U.S. Public Health Service before Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him New York State Commissioner of Health. Dr. Parran was best known for his efforts to destigmatize sexually transmitted diseases. He became famous for an incident in 1934, when CBS asked him to omit the word 'syphilis' from an upcoming talk. When Dr. Parran refused, the radio station cancelled his broadcast. But newspapers around the country printed the entire talk, which gave the issue national prominence.

During his time as State Health Commissioner, Dr. Parran oversaw the construction of three new state tuberculosis hospitals, and assumed the administration of the Ray Brook and West Haverstraw hospitals. Dr. Parran left New York when President Roosevelt appointed him Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service. Less than a year into his term, he led a syphilis control campaign. He was the author of Shadow on the Land (1937), a book that details the principles of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) control, which includes timely diagnosis and treatment, screening for unsuspected infection, partner notification, and public education and engagement – principles that are still in use today.

Dr. Parran also spearheaded federal research programs for cancer, TB, mental illness and venereal disease. In addition, he led the postwar development of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Parran is credited with helping to create the World Health Organization (WHO), and in 1946 chaired the International Health Conference at which the WHO's draft constitution was adopted. He later led U.S. delegations to WHO assemblies. Dr. Parran founded and became the first dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health. He died in Pittsburgh in 1968 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Photo of Edward S. Godfrey, Jr., M.D.

Edward S. Godfrey, Jr., M.D. (1936-1947)

Dr. Godfrey was born in 1878 in Fort Yates, North Dakota. After graduating from the University of Virginia Medical School, Dr. Godfrey had a medical practice in Arizona, where he became the Superintendent of Public Health. Dr. Godfrey was an American Red Cross captain in World War I. He joined the New York State Department of Health as sanitary supervisor and later became Director of the Division of Communicable Diseases.

Later, as Director and Assistant Commissioner of Local Health Administration, Dr. Godfrey recognized and directed the work of 16 state health districts, supervised public health projects in about 40 counties and oversaw the work of approximately 800 local health officers. His organizational leadership skills encouraged Governor Herbert H. Lehman to appoint Dr. Godfrey Commissioner upon the departure of Dr. Thomas Parran.

Dr. Godfrey mounted an intense campaign against tuberculosis and oversaw a major reorganization of the Department, which included establishing four operating divisions – laboratories and research, local health services, medical services, and tuberculosis. The portrait of him seen here was painted by Helena Johnson Ingraham, the wife of Dr. Hollis Ingraham, the state's eighth Commissioner of Health. He retired in 1947 and died in 1960 after a long illness.

Photo of Herman E. Hilleboe, M.D. (1947-1963)

Herman E. Hilleboe, M.D. (1947-1963)

Dr. Hilleboe was born in 1906 in Westhope North Dakota. He earned his medical degree from the University of Minnesota and a master's in public health from Johns Hopkins. The early years of his career were spent as a country doctor in the rural regions of Minnesota. As Assistant Surgeon General of the Public Health Service, Dr. Hilleboe established the national tuberculosis program. He also worked for the National Institutes of Health before being summoned to Albany to be the Commissioner of Health. Dr. Hilleboe became the state's longest-serving Health Commissioner and worked for three governors – Thomas E. Dewey, Averell Harriman and Nelson A. Rockefeller.

As Commissioner, Dr. Hilleboe promoted the new Salk vaccine for polio and drove down rates of polio across the state. With a strong belief in research, he turned Roswell Park Memorial Institute into a leading cancer research hospital, and established a Chronic Disease Research Institute, a Bureau of Chronic Disease and Geriatrics, and a Cardiovascular Health Center.

Dr. Hilleboe also converted the New York State Rehabilitation Hospital at West Haverstraw from a facility for disabled children to one of the best rehabilitation centers in the country, for patients of all ages. West Haverstraw was later renamed Helen Hayes Hospital. Dr. Hilleboe established five regional offices to improve the Department's communications with local health departments and consolidated Department operations in Albany. His efforts to improve environmental health led to programs to control air and water pollution.

After retiring from the state, Dr. Hilleboe went on to head the Division of Public Health Practice at Columbia University and served as the chief organizer of Florida's new Emergency Medical Service system. He died of a heart attack in 1974.

Photo of Hollis S. Ingraham, M.D.

Hollis S. Ingraham, M.D. (1963-1975)

Dr. Ingraham was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1908. He was a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Harvard University School of Public Health. As a district health officer in Kingston, Dr. Ingraham was not popular among dairy farmers, who bristled at his strict adherence to inspection standards. He joined the state Department of Health in 1934 as an epidemiologist, and served as a commander in the Navy in World War II. He returned to the state Department of Health after the war and was made Deputy Commissioner in 1948. He served as Commissioner of Health under Governors Nelson Rockefeller and Malcolm Wilson.

During his tenure, Dr. Ingraham oversaw the implementation of Medicaid and Medicare in New York State. As an advocate of government regulation, he pushed for passage of Article 28 of the Public Health Law, and made New York a pioneer in the oversight of hospitals, nursing homes and health care facilities. Under Dr. Ingraham's leadership, the Department closed many nursing homes that had become dangerous or inadequate.

After his retirement from the state, he served as a public health physician for the Albany County Department of Health. He continued in that position until he became ill. He died in 1994.

Photo of Robert P. Whalen, M.D.

Robert P. Whalen, M.D. (1975-1978)

Dr. Whalen was born in Newburgh, New York in 1925. He served in the Army as a technical sergeant with a hospital unit in Europe, the Canal Zone, the Philippines and Japan. He received his medical degree from Albany Medical College and a master's in public health from Harvard University. He was only 28 when he was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Albany County Health Department, where he went on to become Commissioner. He joined the state Department of Health as Associate Commissioner of Community Health Services and became the Deputy Commissioner. He was appointed the state Commissioner of Health by Governor Hugh L. Carey.

Dr. Whalen bolstered the Department's role in health care regulation and cost control. Under his leadership, New York State slowed the rate of cost increases of nursing homes to about half the national rate. Dr. Whalen was also an advocate for long-term care and the importance of having a health care proxy. More than 100 nursing homes were closed during his tenure due to safety concerns. He developed a program of nursing home inspections, surveillance and monitoring.

In addition, Dr. Whalen oversaw the creation of the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, initiated efforts to deal with chemical contamination of the environment and oversaw the enactment of the public health law that certified health maintenance organizations.

Dr. Whalen was a board member of the National Library of Medicine and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers. After retirement, he served as interim president of Albany Medical Center and executive vice president of Hospital Underwriter's Mutual Insurance Company. He died in 2009 after a long illness.

Photo of David Axelrod, M.D.

David Axelrod, M.D. (1979-1991)

Dr. Axelrod was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1935. The son of an Orthodox rabbi, he was a Harvard-educated physician and research scientist for the National Institutes of Health before joining the New York State Department of Health in 1968 as Director of the Infectious Disease Center. He later served as Director of the Division of Laboratories and Research. He was appointed Commissioner by Governor Hugh L. Carey and later by Governor Mario Cuomo.

Dr. Axelrod was well-known for imposing strict rules and regulations on the state's hospitals and doctors. Under his leadership, New York became the first state in the nation to restrict the number of hours that hospitals can require interns and residents to work. He increased the disciplining of doctors and the imposition of fines on hospitals that violated regulations. His stringent rules garnered him a national reputation, and New York's medical establishment became one of the most tightly regulated in the U.S., leading critics in health care to call for his removal.

During his tenure, Dr. Axelrod established innovative policies that often became models for the rest of the country. He spearheaded the cleanup at Love Canal, oversaw the creation of the AIDS Institute and lobbied for money to conduct research into this new and mysterious disease. He also established the Task Force on Life and the Law, and worked with SUNY President Vincent O'Leary to create the School of Public Health at University at Albany. Inside the Department, he created the Office of Public Health and Office of Health Systems Management.

Under his leadership, the Department launched Child Health Plus, a state health insurance plan for eligible children. Dr. Axelrod also advocated for universal health insurance. He led statewide efforts to control exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke, chaired the Governor's Disaster Preparedness Commission and pioneered the use of reimbursement methodology that rewarded efficiency.

While still commissioner in 1991, he suffered a devastating stroke, from which he never recovered. His untimely stroke forced his retirement, which was described in a New York Times editorial as "a stunning loss." He died three years later at the age of 59.

Photo of Mark R. Chassin, M.D., M.P.P., M.P.H.

Mark R. Chassin, M.D., M.P.P., M.P.H. (1992-1994)

Dr. Chassin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1947. He received his medical degree from Harvard University and a master's degree in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also holds a master's degree in public health from the University of California at Los Angeles. He was working as an emergency room physician and expert on health care cost containment in California when Governor Mario Cuomo tapped him to become the Commissioner of Health.

Under Dr. Chassin's leadership, the Department banned smoking at youth facilities, launched the Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act and increased immunizations for children through the new Vaccines for Children program. Dr. Chassin created the first sustained needle exchange programs, promoted a comprehensive AIDS education curriculum for schools, and dealt with the nation's largest rabies epidemic.

During his tenure, underserved children received greater access to primary and preventive health care through school-based health clinics. He also coordinated the Early Intervention Program, created the Office of Minority Health, and shined a spotlight on outcome measurement. In addition, Dr. Chassin led the Department's efforts to curb a resurgence of tuberculosis and oversaw the opening of a state veteran's nursing home at St. Albans.

After leaving state government, Dr. Chassin was a professor of health policy and founding chairman of the Department of Health Policy at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. He went on to become president and CEO of The Joint Commission.

Photo of Barbara A. DeBuono, M.D., M.P.H.

Barbara A. DeBuono, M.D., M.P.H. (1995-1998)

Dr. DeBuono was born in 1955 in the Bronx, New York. A graduate of the University of Rochester School of Medicine, she was the Rhode Island Director of Health before Governor George Pataki appointed her New York's Commissioner of Health. She was the first woman to head the state's Health Department.

During her tenure in New York, the Department of Health assumed control of the Medicaid program, which had been administered by the Department of Social Services. New York introduced managed care into Medicaid, and implemented a Managed Care Bill of Rights for all patients. The state also attempted to tackle skyrocketing costs at hospitals and nursing homes by replacing regulatory control of hospital rates with those driven by market forces.

Under Dr. DeBuono's leadership, the Department expanded eligibility for the Child Health Plus health insurance program, strengthened the Department's Professional Medical Conduct program and took over administration of the Batavia Veteran's Nursing Home. In addition, the Department developed new regulations to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and identify potentially infected newborns at the earliest possible point. New York also became a leader in setting standards for cardiac surgery, in monitoring those outcomes and sharing performance data with patients, physicians and hospitals.

To inspire better health among Health Department employees, Dr. DeBuono hosted the Commissioner's Physical Activity Challenge, which achieved 50% employee participation. She left to become chief executive at New York Presbyterian Healthcare Network and executive vice president of the New York Presbyterian Healthcare System.

Photo of Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H.

Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr.P.H. (1999-2006)

Dr. Novello was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico in 1944. She received her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico and went on to a career at the National Institutes of Health, where she was known for her work in pediatric AIDS. She became deputy director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. As U.S. Surgeon General under President George Bush, she focused on children's health issues, and was a vocal critic of tobacco and teen smoking. She was appointed the state Commissioner of Health by Governor George Pataki.

In 2001, Dr. Novello visited the site of the World Trade Center attacks. She later argued for funding to study the effects of the attacks on the health of first responders. She also spearheaded the Department's response to the E. coli outbreak at the Washington County Fair and the West Nile Virus outbreak in 2000. Dr. Novello led the response to the anthrax scare in New York City after 9/11, and called for increasing the Department's capacity for testing and educating the public about preventing and responding to bioterrorism. In addition, she expanded access to health care for the uninsured, and strengthened the state's disaster preparedness.

After her service as Commissioner, she was vice president of Women's and Children's Health and Policy Affairs at Disney Children's Hospital at Florida Hospital in Orlando, from which she retired in 2014.

Photo of Richard F. Daines, M.D.

Richard F. Daines, M.D. (2007-2010)

Dr. Daines was born in Preston, Idaho in 1951. A former Mormon missionary in Bolivia and Sunday school teacher, Dr. Daines received his medical degree from Cornell University. He practiced critical care medicine for more than 25 years at St. Barnabas Hospital in the South Bronx, during the height of the AIDS epidemic. After serving as its medical director, Dr. Daines became the president and chief executive of St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. He was appointed the State Health Commissioner by Governor Eliot Spitzer.

During his tenure, he implemented the recommendations of the Commission on Health Care Facilities in the 21st Century – commonly known as the Berger Commission – and closed and consolidated many hospitals and nursing homes. He established the Department's first office to focus on the development and implementation of electronic health records and other health information technologies. In his first year as Commissioner, he turned down millions of dollars in federal grants for abstinence-only sex education because he did not believe it worked. He also presided over the Department during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak and its accompanying shortages of vaccine. He angered health workers when he asked them to get flu vaccines to prevent the spread of swine flu.

Dr. Daines was a vocal proponent of a soda tax to reduce sugar consumption and raised money to combat rising childhood obesity rates. Shortly before he left his position, he collaborated with New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley on a request to let the city experiment with a ban on using food stamps to buy soda. He was the first Health Commissioner to use social media for health messages.

Dr. Daines left state service to become a visiting scholar at the New York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan. He died unexpectedly in 2011.

Photo of Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. (2011-2014)

Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. (2011-2014)

Dr. Shah was born in Buffalo, New York in 1972. He received his medical degree and master's in public health from Yale University and is board-certified in internal medicine. He was a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar at UCLA and associate investigator at Geisinger in central Pennsylvania. He was an attending physician at Bellevue Hospital Center in Manhattan before becoming Commissioner under Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

Dr. Shah is a nationally recognized thought leader in patient safety and quality, comparative effectiveness, and the methods needed to transition to lower-cost, patient-centered health care for the 21st century. He was an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, served as chairman of National Institutes of Health grant review panels, and published nearly 100 peer-reviewed articles.

During Dr. Shah's tenure, the Department revamped its Medicaid program, which resulted in more than $4 billion in savings in just the first year. The effort led to the Delivery System Reform Incentive Program, which continues to expand health system reforms across the state.

Dr. Shah oversaw the launch of the NY State of Health Marketplace exchange, which went on to provide quality health insurance to more than three million New Yorkers. In addition, he led the debut of Health Data NY, the state's open data website, featuring everything from restaurant inspection reports to cardiac surgery data. During his tenure, the Department created the evidence-based Prevention Agenda designed to improve the health of all New Yorkers.

Dr. Shah also spearheaded efforts to develop an All Payer Database that will provide data on the state's health care system and enable consumers to make more informed decisions about their health plans and the providers they select.

Dr. Shah left the Department in 2014 to assume the role of senior vice president and chief operating officer for clinical operations at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.