In memoriam: Dr Halfdan T. Mahler 1923-2016 – University of Copenhagen

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21 December 2016

In memoriam: Dr Halfdan T. Mahler 1923-2016

Halfdan Mahler passed away in Geneva, Switzerland on December 14th 2016.

He will be remembered as the father of Primary Health Care and Health for All concepts and declarations, and more important, of getting concepts and declarations into action and broadly accepted – though not by all. The 1978 Alma Ata Declaration remains a landmark in international and world health, e.g. global health; so does his changing of the World Health Organization into a dynamic player against disease and inequity in health, when serving as Director-General of WHO from 1973-1988.

His key-role in making WHO and UNICEF join forces is best known from the 1975 report, Alternative Approaches to Meeting Basic Health Needs in Developing Countries. However, his work in WHO and with UNICEF began already in 1950 in Equador. When the Danish driven, US Marshall Aid paid BCG vaccination campaign in Post-World War II Europe, run by Red Cross-WHO-UNICEF was ended by the fall of the Iron Curtain, Halfdan Mahler expanded it to a developing country, Equador. This also inspired to the later Danish International Development Agency, DANIDA.      In 1951-61 he worked for WHO as senior officer for the National Tuberculosis Programme in India and later as Chief of the Tuberculosis Unit in Geneva, and as Assistant Director-General.

When his term ended in the WHO, he headed the International Planned Parenthood Federation 1988-1995.

In year 2000, when vertical health programmes challenged primary health care (again), he supported the alternative Peoples Health Assembly. The same year, he delivered the speech at the University of Copenhagen for the first batch of Master in International Health students graduating from the Faculty of Medicine. He also supported the writer of this obituary when convincing colleagues in TropEd, a network of institutions for higher education in international health, that a special module on refugee health to supplement more conventional tropical medicine courses was needed. When TropEd colleagues later met in Copenhagen, in spite of approaching the age of 80, he gave a most inspiring speech on priorities in health and health education. He was honorary doctor at the University of Copenhagen.

Not unexpectedly, the motto on his coat of arms, in the Frederiksborg Castle Chapel, is “Health for all, all for health”, surrounding a globe, where India and Africa are facing the admirer, not Europe and the USA. He will be missed much.

Ib C. Bygbjerg, professor of international health & head of studies, Master of Science in Global Health.