Dr. Margaret Hamburg to speak at 159th Commencement

Image courtesy of Margaret Hamburg.

The Vassar Class of 2023 went on spring break its first year of college and didn’t return to campus until the following fall. Students took online classes in their childhood bedrooms. Their social lives condensed to pods. They lived in the suffocating “Vassar Bubble.” Seniors have watched the school they had briefly gotten to know slowly return to “normal” this past year, just as they prepare to leave. Despite these circumstances though, or perhaps because of them, members of the senior class have maintained an ever-present desire to make the most of what they have been given—to explore, to mess up, to work hard, to create a meaningful legacy.

It seems fitting, then, that Dr. Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg will be the speaker for the 159th Commencement ceremony on May 21, 2023, as she herself has created a meaningful legacy in the medical and public health fields. 

Hamburg currently serves as Co-President of the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), a global organization that brings together over 140 academies to tackle issues of public health, science and policy, per IAP’s website. In January 2023, President Joe Biden appointed Hamburg as Vice Chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides counsel on the government’s intelligence efforts and their effectiveness, according to a White House press release. She also sits on various public health and policy boards and committees.

Hamburg’s previous experiences are numerous and impressive. From 1991 to 1997, she was the Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In 1997, former President Bill Clinton appointed her Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services. Hamburg worked for the Nuclear Threat Initiative for eight years, beginning in 2001, notably serving as the Senior Scientist from 2005 to 2009.

Former President Barack Obama named her Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); she served in that position from 2009 to 2015. “I was only the second woman, but I was one of the longest-serving FDA Commissioners in modern history, which maybe says something about the sticking power of women,” she quipped. From 2017 to 2019, she was the President and Chair of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, she has appeared on Forbes’ “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” list multiple times and was recently awarded the “2023 Outstanding Achievement in Public Health Award” from Research!America.

Hamburg’s interest in public health, medicine and science began as she grew up on the vibrant and sunny Stanford University campus, where her parents, both physicians, were professors. Her mother, Beatrix McCleary Hamburg ’44, was the first self-identified Black woman to attend and graduate from Vassar College and the Yale School of Medicine.

Hamburg told The Miscellany News, “I was surrounded by people in medicine or medically related fields. And my parents really sort of, in the very beginning, instilled in me the importance of serving people in the work you do.”

She moved to the East Coast to study at Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1977. She then attended Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1983. Hamburg completed her residency at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, becoming board-certified in Internal Medicine.

While she chose medicine as a career path, Hamburg acknowledged that this decision was absolutely shaped by the environment she grew up in, reflecting: “I did sort of feel like maybe I only think I want to go into medicine because I was raised with that idea and surrounded by people who were in medicine.” Her medical background, though, proved to lead Hamburg down various enriching paths. “I think I always sort of secretly knew that my career might take on new directions,” she noted.

The emergence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s sparked Hamburg’s pivot from medicine to public health. She cited her personal connection working with patients as a motivator for broadening the focus of her own work. “[W]hile I struggled as an idealistic young doctor to figure out how to take care of these patients and ease their suffering and extend their lives, I also saw how this disease was raising issues and concerns in many other sectors. Social concerns, legal concerns, ethical concerns, political issues. And it really made me want to work at the intersection of all of those things.” She continued, “I think one of the things that I’ve been struck by throughout my career is how much it matters to really be on the ground, to get your hands dirty and to understand the problem.”

Serving as New York City’s Health Commissioner allowed Hamburg to continue her work in the fight against HIV. One of her initiatives included needle exchange programs aimed at reducing the disease’s spread. Among other efforts, she also began the first public health biological threat defense program in the country. She built on this experience at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, remarking, “I had gotten deeply involved in issues of bioweapons and bioterrorism because I was Health Commissioner in New York City the first time the World Trade Center was bombed, which is now almost exactly 30 years ago… [I]t opened up the threat of domestic terrorism as a public health concern in ways that I had never really thought about.”

Breadth and depth of experience are evidently defining factors of Hamburg’s career, establishing her legacy as one rooted in lasting medical—and social—change. Hamburg described, “You know, we live in a really complicated and challenging world. Unfortunately, your generation is inheriting a lot of problems that need a great deal of work. And I think the opportunity to roll up your sleeves and make a difference is both daunting, but really exciting. And to me, nothing has been more gratifying than to really know that my work is making a difference to people in their lives and that I have been able to help advance the opportunity for a better, safer world.”

Hamburg also emphasized the great reward of mentoring upcoming generations as they carve their own paths, remarking, “[L]ike my mother, I have come to feel that one of my greatest contributions can be to help others, to mentor people at the earliest stages in their career as they think about what they want to do, what kinds of opportunities they might pursue and how to do so. I find that enormously gratifying.”

Speaking at Commencement will be especially meaningful to Hamburg, as she will not only get to advise this next generation, but get to do so at Vassar, a place that was deeply significant and formative for her mother. She expressed, “[M]y mother is no longer with us, but she would be very proud. Vassar really was important to her.”

Hamburg expanded on her mother’s experience, saying: “[S]he had struggles along the way, breaking the race barrier at Vassar and then at Yale Medical School, and in other settings, and also going into a field of medicine that was poorly or inadequately developed and really shaping the field of adolescent psychiatry and building out new programs and approaches and understandings.”

McCleary Hamburg reflected on her time at Vassar in a 1946 essay penned for the Vassar Quarterly. She often felt like a representative for an entire group of people, rather than just herself, writing: “But it’s an odd thing about my education in a predominantly white college that it made me learn more about Negroes than I knew when I came.” 

Her experience at Vassar was multifaceted, as McCleary Hamburg also found the all-women environment to be immensely empowering. Her daughter described, “[S]he loves the fact that she, as a student, got to see women, her friends and colleagues, in all the leadership roles. She said it helped give her the confidence that women could be the editors of the school newspaper, the President of the College.”

Vassar has changed significantly since the ’40s, but its history of encouraging excellence from its students has continued. Members of the Class of 2023 are undoubtedly prepared to enter the world beyond the “Vassar Bubble” and hopefully, like Hamburg and her mother, leave it a little better than they found it.

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