Kristine Gebbie, a health policy expert who served as the nation’s first AIDS czar in the early 1990s, died on May 17 in Adelaide, Australia. She was 78 years old.
The cause was cancer, said his daughter Eileen Gebbie.
After serving as director of health for the states of Oregon and Washington and as a member of two national panels, formed by President Ronald Reagan, seeking to address the emerging AIDS epidemic, Dr. Gebbie, a nurse, was hired by President Bill Clinton in June 1993 to fulfill his campaign promise to make the disease a public health priority.
He named her the national AIDS policy coordinator to design prevention strategies, provide resources for states and communities to establish their own programs, and reconcile the efforts of federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the of Public Health and the National Institutes of Health.
Several more prominent candidates had already turned down the job, and Dr. Gebbie accepted it without any illusions. While her appointment made her a member of the President’s Council on National Policy, her office never achieved the stature or effectiveness that AIDS activists hoped for.
“It gets you into just about every complicated human question you have to deal with,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1993. “What does human sexuality mean? What is the balance point between the rights and responsibilities of an individual and the rights and responsibilities of a community? What is our responsibility to people at the end of life? At what point do we accept the reality of death and not fight it with everything we have?
She favored the provision of clean needles to drug addicts, the distribution of condoms to sexually active adolescents, and the incorporation of AIDS education into health curricula, even for young children. Many conservatives opposed those positions, as they had opposed their earlier criticism of the Reagan administration’s proposal to routinely test marriage license applicants, federal prisoners and certain other groups.
“You don’t talk to them about safe sex,” Dr. Gebbie said, “but you teach them that their body is something to take care of and that viruses can mess it up.”
Federal spending on AIDS increased under Dr. Gebbie’s watch, and her appointment was announced at a Rose Garden ceremony, but she was not working from the White House; her office was in a building across the street that also housed a McDonald’s.
“My assumption,” he told The New York Times in 1993, “is that my choice makes it clear that this is not someone who spends all his time outdoors waking people up, but someone who is prepared to spend a long time inside for it to work.
“It is very clear how many people were actually expecting miracles,” he added. “When I give what I know to be appropriate responses, I know I sound like a stick in bureaucratic mud: ‘This lady isn’t worth two cents to us; she talks about coordination and cooperation. Straw!’
“But part of my mission,” Dr. Gebbie continued, “is to help people keep their expectations realistic.”
Various AIDS activist organizations demanded that she be replaced, and she did not last long in office; she resigned after 13 months, in July 1994.
During Dr. Gebbie’s tenure, President Clinton said in a statement at the time that the federal government had increased funding and other resources “for prevention and research, expedited the research and approval process for new drugs, and required that all federal employees receive comprehensive workplace education. .” He thanked her for giving “a boost to this vitally important battle when it was desperately needed and long overdue.”
Kristine Elizabeth Moore was born on June 26, 1943, in Sioux City, Iowa, the daughter of Thomas Moore, a career officer in the Army, and Irene (Stewart) Moore, who worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. .
He moved from Panama to the Philippines to New Mexico when his father relocated to the military; she was also raised for a time by her maternal grandparents in Miles City, Mont. She was inspired by an aunt, Susie Stewart, to go into nursing and worked as a nursing assistant in high school.
She earned her bachelor of science in nursing from St. Olaf College in Minnesota in 1965, her master’s degree in community mental health from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1968, and her doctorate in public health from the University of Michigan in 1995.
She served as Oregon State Health Administrator from 1978 to 1989 and Washington State Health Secretary from 1989 to 1993.
As an epidemiologist and authority on emergency preparedness, she was a member of the AIDS task force of the American Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and was later recruited by the Reagan White House AIDS Commission, even though she had criticized the Reagan administration’s response to the epidemic as inadequate.
She was Professor of Nursing at Columbia University School of Nursing and Director of the Columbia Center for Health Policy from 1994 to 2000. She was Dean of the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing from 2008 to 2010.
She taught at the Torrens Resilience Initiative at Flinders University and at the University of Adelaide School of Nursing in Australia, where she had relocated with her husband, Lester Nils Wright, a physician, and where they both retired. Dr. Wright died last month.
Her first marriage, to Neil Gebbie, ended in divorce. In addition to her daughter Eileen, she is survived by her children from her first marriage, Anna, Sharon and Eric Gebbie; her stepsons, Jason and Nathan Wright; her sister, Sina Ann; 10 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.