Saying the threat of a swine flu pandemic had caught the Obama White House unprepared would be an understatement. When the disease was first reported, the administration lacked a Health and Human Services Secretary (former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in for the post on April 28), a surgeon general or a permanent head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Into the breach, however, stepped Dr. Richard E. Besser, the CDC's calm-voiced, telegenic acting director.
Under Besser, the CDC seems to be moving with admirable dispatch and clarity to inform Americans and coordinate the government response to the crisis something that isn't always typical for a government agency. Taking on the post the day after President Obama's inauguration, Besser replaced Julie Gerberding, who headed the CDC for six years in the Bush Administration. A bioterrorism and infectious disease expert, Besser has been all over TV screens recently, explaining in soothing, cogent tones what's going on. He may be the authority figure the nation needs right now. (See the top 5 Swine Flu Don'ts).
49 years old. Married to Jeanne Besser, a food writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They have two sons.
Besser's father, William, spent summers as a volunteer on an Indian reservation. His older brother, Mitchell, runs Mothers2Mothers, an agency aimed at preventing mother-to-child transmission of AIDS. His younger brother, Andrew, is a Los Angeles medical malpractice and personal injury lawyer.
Received his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Williams College, and decided to enter medicine after traveling the world post-graduation. Received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1986. Did his residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins and worked for a year in Bangladesh at a diarrheal disease research center, where he learned about pathology, epidemiology and other medical detective work.
Joined the CDC's Epidemic Intelligence Service in 1991. Shortly thereafter, he traced an outbreak of E. coli that had caused six children to be ill to unpasteurized apple cider.
Most recently, Besser has been the director of the CDC's Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response. That's the primary organization charged with protecting the nation from biological, chemical, radiological and natural emergencies. Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana the morning he started this job in 2005.
Has authored and co-authored more than 100 presentations, abstracts, chapters, editorials and publications, including clinical must-reads like last year's "Improving cross-sectoral and cross-jurisdictional coordination for public health emergency legal preparedness."
Winner of numerous awards for his work in public health and volunteerism, including treating pediatric patients in an Atlanta clinic.
Whether or not Besser get the job permanently is up in the air.
"For Americans to truly be healthier, they must not only have access to
treatment once sick, but they should also receive recommended screenings to detect the risk of disease early; have access to evidence-based interventions to prevent disease and injury before they occur; be supported by care systems that minimize the progression of disease once it occurs; and live, work and play in environments that promote healthy choices and behaviors."
On making health care work for American families (Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Health Committee on Energy and Commerce in the United States House of Representatives, March 31, 2009)
"In addition to helping stimulate jobs, this funding will provide the nation
with a foundation on which to build its prevention activities as part of
On accelerating disease prevention through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (March 31, 2009)
"This is moving fast, but we view this more as a marathon."
On the CDC's response to the spread of Swine Flu (White House Press Conference, April 26, 2009)
"You learn how to talk to people in a setting of crisis, and not be overly
On his bedside manner (The Washington Post, April 29, 2009)
"He is a scientist who has mastered the healer's delicate art of
simultaneously projecting deep concern and profound calm, telling national
audiences to worry but not to worry."
Staff Writer David Montgomery (The Washington Post, April 29, 2009)
"I have been impressed with him. He has been very transparent about what they know and don't know."
Dr. David Satcher, former director of the disease control centers (The New York Times, April 28, 2009)
"He has lapped me."
Dr. Mehmet Oz, a regular on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," who attended medical school with Besser, praising the acting CDC director's television appearances (The New York Times, April 28, 2009)
"Washing well enough is the real issue, Besser said. He keeps hand gel in his pocket for between-washings but also suggested that people sing "Happy Birthday" as they wash their hands to make sure they've washed long enough to get rid of germs."
On whether washing hands or alcohol-based gels is best (Associated Press , May 1, 2009)