Halfdan T. Mahler

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Halfdan T. Mahler
Halfdan Mahler by Erling Mandelmann.jpg
Director-General of the World Health Organization
In office
Preceded byMarcolino Gomes Candau
Succeeded byHiroshi Nakajima
Personal details
Halfdan Theodor Mahler

(1923-04-21)21 April 1923
Vivild, Jutland, Denmark
Died14 December 2016(2016-12-14) (aged 93)
Geneva, Switzerland
Alma materUniversity of Copenhagen

Halfdan Theodor Mahler (21 April 1923 – 14 December 2016) was a Danish physician.[1] He served three terms as director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) from 1973 to 1988, and is widely known for his effort to combat tuberculosis and his role in having shaped the landmark Alma Ata Declaration that defined the Health for All by the Year 2000 strategy.[2][3][4]


Mahler was born in Vivild, Denmark, in 1923, the last of seven children. Eschewing a career as a preacher, Mahler studied medicine at the University of Copenhagen (1948).[5] Building on his postgraduate work in public health, his first international activities were in tuberculosis and community work in under-developed countries. He directed a Red Cross antituberculosis campaign in Ecuador between 1950 and 1951.[6]

In 1951, Mahler joined the World Health Organization (WHO) and spent almost ten years in India as Senior WHO Officer attached to the National Tuberculosis Programme. From 1962, he was Chief of the Tuberculosis Unit at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva until 1969, when he was appointed Director, Project Systems Analysis. From the late 1960s, under Mahler's lead, the WHO projects related to the development of "basic health services" were increased; these projects were the institutional predecessors of the primary health care programs that would later appear.[6] In 1970, he was made Assistant Director-General of WHO while retaining the direction of Project Systems Analysis.[5]

Mahler was elected WHO's third Director-General in 1973. In the same year, the Executive Board of WHO issued the report "Organizational Study on Methods of Promoting the Development of Basic Health Services". Mahler established a close rapport with Henry Labouisse. The agreement produced in 1975 a joint WHO–UNICEF report, Alternative Approaches to Meeting Basic Health Needs in Developing Countries, which examined successful primary health care in various countries.[6] This report also criticized the idea of vertical approach methods of focusing on specific diseases as well as adding Western approaches to developing countries. The result of this report led WHO to re-construct their approaches to Primary Health Care, which led to a worldwide debate.[5]

Mahler delivered a speech at the 1976 World Health assembly describing weakening social structures and launching his Health for all by 2000 goal.[6] He was re-elected for two successive five-year terms in 1978 and 1983. Under Mahler, in 1979, the Thirty-second World Health Assembly launched the Global Strategy for Health for All by the Year 2000. Mahler's "Health for All by the Year 2000" was criticized for being too broad and idealistic, and with the changing political climate of the 1980s health care began to move towards more selective and cost-efficient approaches. Mahler was left to champion a more holistic and inclusive approach to health care on his own and with his departure as the Director-General, the WHO lost its political profile.[6] During the 1980s AIDS epidemic, he acknowledged that WHO were slow to respond to the spread of the disease.[5]

After leaving WHO, Mahler became director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He left the role in 1995. Mahler died in Geneva on 14 December 2016 at the age of 93.[5][7]


  1. ^ Den store Danske. Gyldendal. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  2. ^ "Halfdan T. Mahler Kubulus Alumni". Københavns Universitet. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 2 March 2010.
  3. ^ "Primary health care comes full circle. An interview with Dr Halfdan Mahler". Bulletin of the World Health Organization (BLT) Volume 86, Number 10, October 2008, 737-816. Retrieved 2 March 2010.
  4. ^ Forstå hvordan befolkningen tænker. Portræt / interview: Halfdan Mahler Dagens Medicin, 26 October 2000, 1. sektion, Side 17
  5. ^ a b c d e Chan, Sewell (15 December 2016). "Halfdan Mahler, Who Shifted W.H.O.'s Focus to Primary Care, Dies at 93". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d e Cueto, Marcos. 2004. The ORIGINS of Primary Health Care and SELECTIVE Primary Health Care. Am J Public Health 94 (11):1864-1874.
  7. ^ "Denmark-Born Head of UN Health Agency Dies at 93". The Associated Press. The New York Times. December 15, 2016. Archived from the original on December 20, 2016. Retrieved December 15, 2016.
Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Marcolino Gomes Candau
Director General of the World Health Organization
Succeeded by
Hiroshi Nakajima
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