After a glorious life, inspiring millions and advancing insights that to this day are on the more cutting edge of health sciences and public health, Danish Dr Halfdan Theodor Mahler (21 April 1923) passed away on 14 December 2016.
After his training as a (public health) physician at the University of Copenhagen, Mahler made a career in the Global South in tuberculosis control and community development. In 1973, he was elected as the World Health Organization’s third Director General. He injected the organization with even more passion, compassion and vision than it had seen in its first 25 years.
It is no exaggeration to say that his vision for Primary Health Care (and the commitment to organise the Alma Ata Conference with UNICEF) and drive for the World Health Assembly to adopt its ambitious Health for All by the Year 2000 decisively set the stage for the innovations in health promotion and public health that we are still struggling to implement today. He was a visionary and an idealist.
Mahler gave a powerful speech at the 1976 World Health Assembly about how social structures were crumbling and about launching his ‘Health for All by the Year 2000’ goal. It is a speech that still resonates, and in the uncertain times of a seemingly crumbling world order in 2017 are worth revisiting.
Mahler was re-elected for two successive five-year terms in 1978 and 1983, respectively. He remained very active in health advocacy after he stepped down, and lived only a short train ride away from the WHO office on Via Appia in Geneva where he often visited and remained a welcome and astute guest.
Perhaps his most enduring and endearing quality was his incisive analysis of social injustice and the role of health professionals. In a video on the occasion of the launch of the Ottawa Charter, he challenged ‘doctors’ to adopt the social model of health, consider the social determinants of health, and work with communities to shape their health. Without Mahler, health promotion as we know it would not have existed and flourished—as the recent Ninth Global Conference on Health Promotion has demonstrated. The proceedings of that conference are very much in his spirit.
Symbolically, it may, therefore, be significant that he has seen our field through a complex yet promising evolution. If we all, microscopically, stand on the shoulders of giants, Halfdan Mahler was the greatest among them.
Evelyne de Leeuw, Editor-in-Chief
On behalf of the Editorial Board and Editorial Team
Health Promotion International