Gov. Hochul names new state health commissioner

Photos courtesy of the Governor’s Office

Gov. Kathy Hochul has appointed Dr. Mary Bassett the new state health commissioner, starting on December 1.

Bassett’s career has spanned academia, government and nonprofit work. She currently serves as the director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and is a professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

“Our recovery from this pandemic requires tested leadership and experience to improve health equity and access across the state, and Dr. Bassett is perfectly equipped to lead the New York State Department of Health during this critical moment,” Hochul said. “When I was sworn in as governor, I pledged to build a talented team with the skills, knowledge, and expertise to stop the spread of COVID-19, return our lives to normalcy, and move our state forward.

“Dr. Bassett is both a highly regarded public health expert and an exemplary public servant, and I look forward to working with her to keep New Yorkers safe and healthy.”

From 2014 through summer 2018, Bassett served as commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, where she prioritized racial justice, addressing the persistent gaps in health between white New Yorkers and communities of color, according to Gov. Hochul’s office.

Dr. Mary Bassett. Photo courtesy of Harvard University

She also led the City Health Department’s response to Ebola, Legionnaires’ disease and other outbreaks.

“I am humbled and honored to return to my home state of New York to lead the Department of Health at this pivotal time,” Bassett said. “The pandemic underscored the importance of public health, while also revealing inequities driven by structural racism.

“As we move to end the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to create a state that is more equitable for all New Yorkers.”

Bassett’s appointment comes a week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, submitted his resignation.

“[Dr. Zucker] has been a dedicated public servant for over seven and a half years,” Hochul said during an event promoting an NFL initiative to get more New Yorkers vaccinated. “He worked hard through the pandemic and I want to thank him for his service on behalf of the people the state,” Hochul continued. “He has agreed to stay on until the position will be filled.”

It was unclear on Wednesday whether Zucker will remain the commissioner through the end of November.

In 2002, Bassett was appointed deputy commissioner of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. In this role, she led the division responsible for New York City’s tobacco control interventions and food policy, including the nation’s first calorie posting requirements and trans fat restrictions.

Her signature program was the launch of District Public Health Offices in several neighborhoods long harmed by racial, ethnic and economic health inequities. From 2009 to 2014, Bassett served as program director for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s African Health Initiative and Child Well-Being Prevention Program.

Early in her career, Bassett served on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe for 17 years, where she developed a range of AIDS prevention interventions. Building on this experience, she went on to serve as associate director of health equity at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Southern Africa Office, overseeing its Africa AIDS programs. After returning to the United States, she served on the faculty of Columbia University, including as associate professor of clinical epidemiology in its Mailman School of Public Health.

She has received numerous awards, including the Frank A. Calderone Prize in Public Health; a Kenneth A. Forde Lifetime Achievement Award from Columbia University; a Victoria J. Mastrobuono Award for Women’s Health; and the National Organization for Women’s Champion of Public Health Award.

Bassett has also been elected a member of the National Academy of Medicine. She served for many years as an associate editor of the American Journal of Public Health. Her recent publications include articles in The Lancet and in the New England Journal of Medicine addressing structural racism and health inequities in the United States.

Bassett grew up in New York City. She received a B.A. in History and Science from Harvard University, an M.D. from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons — serving her residency at Harlem Hospital — and an M.P.H. from the University of Washington.