BALTIMORE. Public Officials of the Year: Leana Wen, Health Commissioner, Baltimore

By Mattie Quinn

Leana Wen never had her sights set on public office. She was happy working as an emergency room doctor and lecturer in medicine in Washington, D.C. And when the position of Baltimore health commissioner came open, in 2014, she was only 31 years old. But a widely respected former commissioner urged her to apply for his old job, and she decided to go for it. 

There was no way Wen could have imagined what she was about to get into. Just a couple of months after she moved into her new post in Baltimore, riots erupted in the city following the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, in police custody. Wen leveraged the unrest to start a conversation about police brutality and poverty as public health issues. “If we care about our children and their education,” she said, “we should also care about lead poisoning in their homes. If we care about public safety, we should also address mental health and substance addiction and the huge unmet need there.”

Born in Shanghai to a family of Chinese dissidents, Wen emigrated to the U.S. when she was eight and grew up in Compton, south of downtown Los Angeles. She graduated college at 18 -- summa cum laude from California State University -- and then went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, held a clinical fellowship at Harvard, and wrote a book called When Doctors Don’t Listen.

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