Dr LEE Jong-Wook (1945-2006): A Personal Tribute: In This Personal Tribute, Dr Jim Yong Kim, a Close Friend and One-Time Aide of the Late Dr LEE Jong-Wook, Recalls a Modest Man of Few but Carefully Chosen Words Who Devoted His Life to Improving the Health of the Poor. WHO Director-General Lee-Known to Friends and Colleagues as "JW"-Died at the Age of 61 on 22 May Following a Brief Illness

Bulletin of the World Health Organization, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Dr LEE Jong-Wook (1945-2006): A Personal Tribute: In This Personal Tribute, Dr Jim Yong Kim, a Close Friend and One-Time Aide of the Late Dr LEE Jong-Wook, Recalls a Modest Man of Few but Carefully Chosen Words Who Devoted His Life to Improving the Health of the Poor. WHO Director-General Lee-Known to Friends and Colleagues as "JW"-Died at the Age of 61 on 22 May Following a Brief Illness


The first time I met JW Lee was in Peru in 2000. We were surprised when the newly-appointed Director of WHO's Tuberculosis (TB) Programme turned up at a relatively minor meeting in Peru to discuss DOTS-Plus for multidrugresistant TB.

We had heard he was a "vaccine specialist" who had recently been working on a WHO telephone system and that he knew nothing about TB. We had very low expectations. During the first day of the conference I sat down for lunch with him and I began speaking to him in Korean which surprised him as many Korean Americans of my generation have lost the ability to speak the language. In speaking with him, I used the proper honorifics and let him know that I would be very honoured to begin a classically Korean student-teacher relationship. He was pleased and let me know in the most subtle way that this is how we would relate to each other. Later on we spoke English together more often than Korean, but I will always cherish the powerful connection we had through language and culture.

At that conference he displayed one of his key strengths: the ability to listen intently and grasp both the political and technical issues in any area of public health. He spent the entire meeting listening quietly to the proceedings with his arms crossed, observing with great intensity people as they spoke. At the end of the meeting, we asked him to speak. It was typical JW Lee. He started with a joke about WHO itself: "Well, I've never been to a WHO meeting that was not called successful at the end, but I would say that this DOTS-Plus meeting was a successful meeting-plus". He then summarized the meeting in a way that showed he understood the issues and would support our efforts. We were relieved to learn that the new TB Director was extremely sharp and had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humour.

Dr Lee and I became very good friends, and not long after our first meeting his wife Reiko started working in a Partners In Health project in Peru. She is still an integral part of the team and has already returned to Peru to continue her work with nongovernmental organization Mujeres Unidas (Women Together) in the shantytown of Carabayllo.

Dr Lee lived through the Korean War (1950-53) and like so many of his generation, parts of his childhood were very difficult. He was born into an educated family and his father was at one point a high-ranking government official. But his father fell out of favour, as so often happens, and died prematurely of a smoking-related illness. At one point, Dr Lee's entire family had to flee Seoul as troops from the north entered the city. They eventually found themselves in a refugee settlement in the southern coastal area of Korea. Dr Lee's first-hand experience of the desperation of poverty, homelessness and war affected him profoundly. I know of few global public health leaders today who have lived through such hardship. Despite his occasional bouts of cynicism in the face of the political absurdities we often faced at WHO, Dr Lee never lost his deep personal empathy for the suffering of the poor.

After he completed his first degree in engineering at Seoul National University, he went on to complete his mandatory military service, and then promptly decided that he wanted to be a medical doctor. This sudden change in career direction was unusual for a Korean but not surprising for Dr Lee given his broad-ranging interests and brilliant, restless mind. Even during his student days, his gaze seemed to be outward. He was always bringing foreigners to his home for a traditional Korean meal with his family, so that he could practice his English. In a country where nationalism is a powerful force, he was an early convert to internationalism.

Dr Lee was a fierce defender of WHO and the United Nations. On 20 July 2003, the day before he took up his post as WHO Director-General, he met all the new directors and assistant directors-general. Among the many points he made to his new staff, he mentioned the hazards of the rumour mill and the need for great care in communication both within and outside WHO. …

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Dr LEE Jong-Wook (1945-2006): A Personal Tribute: In This Personal Tribute, Dr Jim Yong Kim, a Close Friend and One-Time Aide of the Late Dr LEE Jong-Wook, Recalls a Modest Man of Few but Carefully Chosen Words Who Devoted His Life to Improving the Health of the Poor. WHO Director-General Lee-Known to Friends and Colleagues as "JW"-Died at the Age of 61 on 22 May Following a Brief Illness
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