Gayle, Helene

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Gayle, Helene


Epidemiologist and pediatrician

B orn Helene Doris Gayle, August 16, 1955, in Lancaster, NY; daughter of Jacob (an entrepreneur) and Marietta (a psychiatric social worker) Gayle. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1976; University of Pennsylvania, M.D., 1981; Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, M.P.H., 1981.

Addresses: Home—Atlanta, GA. Office—151 Ellis St. NE, Atlanta, GA 30303.


P ediatric resident, Children’s Hospital National Medical Center, Washington, DC, 1981-84; resident with Epidemic Intelligence Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),Atlanta, GA, 1984-86; medical epidemiologist, CDC, Division of HIV/AIDS, 1984-92; medical researcher, U.S.Agency for International Development, AIDS Division, Washington, DC, 1992-95; director, CDC, National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, 1995-2001; director of the HIV, TB, and Reproductive Health Program, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Seattle, WA, 2001-06; president, International AIDS Society, 2004-06; president and chief executive officer, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) USA, Atlanta, GA, 2006—.


H elene Gayle is a renowned epidemiologist and one of the world’s foremost experts in Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Her career has included executive posts with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the Gates Foundation, but in 2006 she became president and chief executive officer of CARE USA. The first woman and first African American to head the humanitarian organization, Gayle joined CARE at a time when it had recently revised its mission to one that focused on helping poor women around the world. “Women are more likely to sink additional income they have back into their families,” Gayle explained to New York Times writer Stephanie Strom about why CARE was committing itself to a specific gender. When given a bit of financial help, she noted, even in the poorest corners of the world mothers will use it “to send their children to school, whereas men tend to spend such income more egocentrically.”

Gayle was born in 1955, in Lancaster, New York, near Buffalo. She arrived midway through a close-knit family of five and into a household headed by a mother who was a social worker and a father who ran a barber and beauty-supply business. The Gay-les actively encouraged their children to share their own interest in the larger world and also exposed them to the city’s cultural treasures on a regular basis through museum visits and symphony performances. At the age of 12, Gayle was struck by a car and spent time in a full-body cast, but she recovered fully. During her high school years at Ben nett High School, she served as head of the black student union group at the school.

After considering then rejecting a possible career in politics, Gayle entered New York City’s Barnard College in 1972 as a psychology and pre-med major. She went on to earn two medical degrees from prestigious schools—the University of Pennsylvania and Johns Hopkins University. The latter institution, in Baltimore, also granted her a graduate degree in public health. Gayle’s specialty in medicine was pediatrics, and she spent three years as a resident at the Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In 1984, she won a spot in the two-year residency program of the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

At the time that Gayle began at the Epidemic Intelligence Service, there was tremendous fear that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), would decimate global population in just a few short decades. After completing her CDC resi-dency in 1986, she spent the next six years as a medical epidemiologist at the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS, emerging as an expert in pediatric AIDS. Thanks to education, prevention, and research efforts, AIDS failed to become the No. 1 killer in the developed world, as many had predicted, and Gayle was part of that first wave of researchers who conducted important studies and authored scientific papers that became part of the standard body of knowledge for those who treat or work to prevent the disease.

In 1992, Gayle took a post as a medical researcher with the AIDS Division of U.S. Agency for International Development, but she returned to the CDC in 1995 when she was hired to head its National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. This position called upon her scientific training as well as her public-relations skills; the high-profile post put her in a position to recommend policy and decide new initiatives in fighting AIDS as well as other sexually transmitted diseases and another highly communi-cable, potentially fatal sickness, tuberculosis.

In 2001, Gayle moved on to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, which had recently emerged as one of the world’s most generous philanthropic organizations. Started by the founder of the Microsoft computer empire and his wife, the Gates Foundation had just committed $300 million for worldwide HIV and AIDS prevention.

Gayle was invited to head the Foundation’s HIV, TB and Reproductive Health Program, which focused on education and prevention programs. She also served as president of the International AIDS Society for two years. In discussing the wide-ranging nature of her job, Gayle told Linda Villarosa in a New York Times interview: “Though cultures and societies are different, working with commercial sex workers in Thailand is not dissimilar to working with populations of gay men here. Around the world the epidemic affects people who are the most vulnerable because they have been stigmatized, isolated, and marginalized by their society. So many of the challenges are the same.”

In April of 2006, Gayle took over as president and chief executive officer of CARE USA. The organization’s name is an acronym for “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere,” and it dates back to the end of World War II and a desire by many Americans to help the war-ravaged population of Western Europe, many of whom faced starvation in the months immediately following the close of hostilities. Its boxes of food and medical supplies became known as “care packages,” and the organization continued its outreach efforts in later decades, expanding to help any who had been displaced by war or were simply living in abject poverty. Based in Atlanta, CARE had 12,000 employees, many of whom worked out of its satellite aid offices around the world.

CARE’s new “I Am Powerful” campaign was already in place when Gayle joined. Its print ads feature images of women and girls from around the world who have benefited from CARE initiatives; the program is aimed at showing women in the developed world how they can help reduce world poverty. Gayle oversaw a budget of nearly $600 million annually meted out to its various programs. “Our main focus is to bring people out of poverty,” she told Ernie Suggs of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are talking about people with no access to clean water, electricity, or health facilities. They don’t have schools. All of the things we as Americans take for granted, even if you are poor.”


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 4, 2007, p. B1.

Buffalo News, December 12, 2005, p. B1.

Ebony, November 1991, p. 38; December 2006, p. 146.

New York Times, August 28, 2001; May 3, 2007.

—Carol Brennan