The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Dr. Helene Gayle

Epidemiologist and public health administrator Dr. Helene D. Gayle was born on August 16, 1955, in Buffalo, New York. The daughter of social worker Marietta Spiller Dabney Gayle and businessman Jacob Astor Gayle, she attended Lancaster, New York’s Court Street Elementary School and Lancaster Middle School. Moving back to Buffalo, Gayle graduated with honors from Woodlawn Junior High School and then from Bennett High School in 1972. Briefly attending Baldwin-Wallace College, she graduated from Barnard College in New York City with her B.S. degree in psychology. Deciding to pursue medicine, Gayle earned her M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as president of the Student National Medical Association. Gayle went on to earn her Masters of Public Health degree from John Hopkins University. She did her pediatric internship and residency at Children’s Hospital National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Gayle was selected to enter the epidemiology training program at Atlanta’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 1984. By 2001, she had risen to director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention of the CDC. Throughout, Gayle concentrated on the effects of AIDS on children, adolescents and families. In the early 1990s, she began to investigate the global ramifications of the disease and authored numerous reports on the real risk factors involved with AIDS. In so doing, she became one of the foremost experts on the subject, appearing on ABC’s Nightline and other news and information programs. Gayle also served as a medical researcher in the AIDS Division of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Gayle warned about substance abuse and advocated female condoms and vaginal virucides. In 2001, Gayle joined the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation as director of the HIV, TB and Reproductive Health Program and was responsible for administering its $300 million dollar budget. At the same time, she was named Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral in the United States Public Health Service. In 2006, Gayle was chosen as the new president and CEO of CARE, the international poverty fighting organization.

Gayle is the recipient of many honors, including: the U.S. Public Health Service achievement medal, in 1989; the National Medical Association Scroll of Merit Award, 2002; Barnard College, Columbia University, Barnard Woman of Achievement, 2001 and the Women of Color, Health Science and Technology Awards, Medical Leadership in Industry Award in 2002. Gayle sits on many community boards. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Accession Number




Interview Date


Last Name


Maker Category
Marital Status



Bennett High School

Court Street Elementary School

Lancaster Middle School

Johns Hopkins University

University of Pennsylvania

Barnard College

Speakers Bureau


Speakers Bureau Availability

Evenings, Weekends

First Name


Birth City, State, Country




Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience


Speakers Bureau Honorarium


Favorite Season


Speaker Bureau Notes

Preferred Audience: Any


New York

Favorite Vacation Destination


Favorite Quote

Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State


Interview Description
Birth Date


Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City




Favorite Food


Short Description

Epidemiologist Dr. Helene Gayle (1955 - ) was president and CEO of CARE, the international poverty fighting organization. She served as director of the National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention of the Center for Disease Control; the director of the HIV, TB and Reproductive Health Program for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Assistant Surgeon General and Rear Admiral in the United States Public Health Service.


Center for Disease Control and Prevention

United States Public Health Services

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


Children's Hospital National Medical Center

McKinsey Social Initiative

The Chicago Community Trust

Timing Pairs

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Dr. Helene Gayle's interview</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Dr. Helene Gayle lists her favorites</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her mother's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her mother's education</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her father's family background</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her parents' personalities</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her earliest childhood memory</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes some of the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Dr. Helene Gayle remembers Court Street Elementary School in Lancaster, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her childhood hobbies</a>

<a href="">Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her parents' civil rights involvement</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls how she became interested in medicine</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her experience at Woodlawn Junior High School</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Dr. Helene Gayle remembers attending Bennett High School in Buffalo, New York</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls the death of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Dr. Helene Gayle remembers being injured in a car accident as a child</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Dr. Helene Gayle remembers Bennett High School's Black Student Union</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her friendships in high school</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Dr. Helene Gayle remembers her decision to attend Barnard College</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her mentors at Barnard College in New York City</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls her decision to attend University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls studying public health at Johns Hopkins University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Dr. Helene Gayle explains her interest in public health</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes the public health campaign against smallpox</a>

<a href="">Tape: 2 Story: 15 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her experience at Johns Hopkins University</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes the Epidemic Intelligence Service at the Center for Disease Control</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls initially being deterred from working with HIV</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her travels to Africa</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Dr. Helene Gayle recalls becoming director of the Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes the relationship of the African American community to public health</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes myths about HIV in the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Dr. Helene Gayle talks about the occurrence of HIV among African Americans</a>

<a href="">Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes HIV policy under President George Walker Bush</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes advancements in HIV research</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Dr. Helene Gayle reflects upon her leadership of public health organizations</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Dr. Helene Gayle reflects upon the response to HIV in the United States</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Dr. Helene Gayle talks about the future of HIV treatment</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes the importance of philanthropy</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Dr. Helene Gayle talks about Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Dr. Helene Gayle describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Dr. Helene Gayle talks about her relationship with Africa</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Dr. Helene Gayle reflects upon her life</a>

<a href="">Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Dr. Helene Gayle reflects upon her legacy and how she would like to be remembered</a>







Dr. Helene Gayle explains her interest in public health
Dr. Helene Gayle recalls initially being deterred from working with HIV
Now at that time would you say you were keenly aware of some of the health disparities in the black community and what the causes were?$$In a general sense, you know, this is when I heard the smallpox talk when I was, my brother was graduating from college and I went to his college graduation that was my, I guess that was in my last year, or my third year, what was ended up being my last year of medical school [University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], and I'd been thinking about public health because I had this general notion of, of the fact that it kind of was an area where you could make a huge impact on, on populations, and then I heard this man [Donald A. Henderson] who had been the leader, one of the leaders of the smallpox eradication campaign and it kind of, for me, crystalized my thinking that this was a way that you could tangibly impact large numbers of peoples' lives, eradicate a disease like we did with smallpox or, you know, really change the course of something in a major way as opposed to doing one-by-one patient care where a lot of times what you're doing is putting band aids on for what are really larger systemic issues.$$Okay, so what I hear you saying and correct me if I'm wrong, is that somebody's got to organize a campaign to deal with disease, you know, to do a certain diseases. It's not enough just to treat 'em as an individual, as individuals coming in who are sick. It's better to, to try to hit with a organized hammer.$$Well, I think what you do in public health as opposed to taking care of individuals, you take care of populations, so the same things you do with individuals, you do with populations, so you look at, you know, you're able to look at what are the reasons why one population has more, is impacted more by hypertension, HIV [human immunodeficiency virus], tuberculosis, you know, low birth weight, or whatever the issue is, and look at what does it take to change that for populations. A lot of times that means changing policies. It may mean, you know, putting in systems that didn't exist. It may mean doing campaigns, but it's really looking at what are the reasons why populations of people are more likely to be hit by a disease or have a less good health in disease like infant mortality or death rates or birth rates, or whatever, and how do you look at what are the issues that influence that, and a lot of times those things aren't necessarily just the virus or the, you know, the infection, or the toxin, it has as much to do with how societies organize or don't organize to make sure that some people have access to the things that cause good health. I mean it could be as simple as the fact that we have bad grocery stores in poor neighborhoods so that obesity and poor nutrition is more likely in poor communities, and so I mean public health looks at all of those factors and not just, you know, X diseases caused by X germ.$$Okay, so for instance, coal miners keep getting black lungs because they're coal miners?$$Right, and so as opposed to being the person who looks at a coal miner and says that person has a particular disease state, let me give them the medicine, public health says these people are at risk because the conditions within the coal mines are making them sick. What do we do to change the conditions in the coal mine?$$Okay. And sometimes that's a struggle, isn't it? I mean in terms of trying to change--$$Change policies, and that's why I say public health really is the interface between medicine and politics and society because in order to make a difference for those coal miners, you may have to get legislation passed in [U.S.] Congress that will affect the conditions that they're, they're living under. So, you know, I think those, that's why for me public health is a, was always a real good blend for my interests because it does marry changing societal factors that cause poor health as well as looking at what's the immediate cause.$Interestingly, at the time when I came, which was 1984, three years after HIV [human immunodeficiency virus] had first been described, I was, had a passing interest in HIV. At that time, pediatric HIV had not been very visible so it wasn't something that I had been involved in in my training, but I asked people about, you know, whether HIV would be a good thing to do my EIS [Epidemic Intelligence Service] years in and most people said, "Stay away from it, it's just a political disease and it's not that important and it's gonna be gone soon anyway," so I kind of, you know, didn't think too much about HIV at the time. I went ahead and did the nutrition and worked on issues of malnutrition in children.$$Let me stop you. What do they mean by political disease?$$Well, it was highly political. You know it was a disease that had a lot of, you know, because it was occurring in gay men and injection drug users, you know, it was very politicized. There were a lot of, you know, just politics involved and people said, you know, "Stay away from it 'cause you just get broiled--embroiled in a bunch of politics around, you know, gays and drug users." And, you know, issues of morality, and all the issues that are involved in, you know, working with marginalized populations that (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Well what was it, the sense then from the physicians that you were talking to that it was gonna stay in a small, I mean, it wasn't really, they thought it was gonna stay right there (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yeah, well that's what I said, I mean people that, people said, you know, "This is something that's gonna be gone." They compared it to like the Legionnaires' disease which CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia] had had been involved with, you know, big, an outbreak confined to a certain group of people, lot of visibility, lot of hype, and then it will be gone, and so go and deal with something that has longer term relevance. So, you know, for me it was, it was partly that, but it was also just, you know, again, since I had been in pediatrics where HIV had not yet really taken a hold, it wasn't as much in my consciousness at the time and so I focused on nutrition and looked at issues of low birth weight, malnutrition, did a lot of work in Africa as well as work here in the United States focusing on those issues. After that, I just, I really enjoyed my experience at the CDC and so took an additional year and preventive medicine residency, so it was another additional residency to get further training in public health and preventive medicine and I did that in our group that focused, the CDC group that focused on specifically issues of childhood mortality in Africa and I worked a lot on childhood, child survival issues, diarrhea and the things that are the main causes of children in African, diarrheal diseases, measles, malaria. I did a year doing a lot of work focused on that, and then just, and then those both the EIS and the preventive medicine program are short-term programs and so I had to make the decision after that: did I wanna stay at CDC and seek permanent employment, or did I wanna go and do something else? And by that time, it was clear that HIV was an important issue, and was, in fact, probably gonna be the defining public health issue of our day, and so I elected to interview the HIV group and started out as a staff epidemiologist in the HIV program. It was called the AIDS program then.$$So it was about 1987 (simultaneous).$$(Simultaneous) Eighty-seven [1987], yeah, yeah.