Robert Steinglass

With JSI since 1987


Immunization Team Leader, JSI International

How did you end up working public health?

The first time I heard of public health was in a newspaper article about the earthquake in Afghanistan in 1972. I wanted to help. I was a product of the late 1960s and was looking for a way to contribute to social justice, and—very important— also for something adventurous and outside my comfort zone. I wrote to several schools of public health to ask if my background was compatible with the sort of person who could be admitted. They all said no because my major had been political science and my minor art history. So I reluctantly applied for Peace Corps, with the stipulation that I’d be assigned to public health work in Ethiopia, because I wanted to go to a country with a proud cultural history that owed nothing to the West. Another applicant must have gotten cold feet at the last minute, because they honored my request and sent me there on short notice to help eradicate smallpox. It was there that I met my wife Dolores, Ethiopia’s first Irish CONCERN volunteer, who was running a famine relief camp that had a case of smallpox

“After working at WHO, I liked the informality of JSI, the lack of officious protocol, the encouragement of people with energy, ideas and zeal, and the overall congeniality.”

Where did you start your career?

When I returned from Ethiopia in 1975, I got my MPH at Johns Hopkins—having become an eligible candidate—and was the first person admitted to the international health department who wasn’t already a doctor or nurse. After graduating, I ran a PHC program in the Nicaraguan jungle for CARE for about 4 months.

At the ripe old age of 28, I was hired by WHO to run a smallpox eradication program in North Yemen. I settled into the culture there with my wife and our six-month-old. Our second son was born in our house, delivered by my midwife wife’s midwife friends

Robert in the waiting room of a clinic in Uganda.

Robert in the waiting room of a clinic in Uganda.

When did you come to JSI?

After setting up immunization programs for WHO in North Yemen, Oman, and Nepal—where I saw JSI in action—I joined JSI in Washington, D.C. in 1987. I began working as a technical officer on REACH, JSI’s first global project, which focused on immunization and health care financing. Since then, I’ve led immunization teams on all our major child survival projects, including REACH II, BASICS, BASICS II, IMMUNIZATIONbasics, MCHIP, and currently MCSP. I serve on various advisory groups for WHO, Institute of Medicine, CDC, UNICEF, and GAVI.

photo robert and john snow

Robert helped celebrate Dr. John Snow’s 200th birthday.

What attracted you to JSI?

After working at WHO, I liked the informality of JSI, the lack of officious protocol, the encouragement of people with energy and ideas and zeal, and the overall congeniality. I have stayed because that JSI environment persists even as we have grown exponentially in the 28 years since I joined.

What’s your family doing now?

Our sons Barry and Aaron are now in their mid-thirties and have five kids between them. Barry entered data here at JSI one summer. He worked on Xbox at Microsoft, then formed his own IT company Chef, and now is a VP at Hulu, in charge of their Seattle office. Aaron lives on top of a mountain near Asheville, North Carolina, where he and his wife grow organic vegetables, prepare food for area farmers’ markets and sell home-made crafts over the internet. Both appreciate their foreign exposure, although Aaron’s birth in North Yemen, as noted on his passport, stimulates unwelcome interest when he travels internationally. Most weekends Dolores and I retreat to our 105-year-old vacation home, in a large clearing on the side of a forested mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia, where bears, owls and the occasional snake are our neighbors.

A Project to Remember

In 1992, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I visited each of the Central Asian Republics to begin a five-year effort for REACH and BASICS. It would be several years before USAID or multilateral agencies would set up shop and I was the first American anyone had seen. Within four weeks of my visit, USG-chartered aircrafts were landing in the CAR for the very first time, bringing cargos of vaccines and, a few months later, cold chain equipment.


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