Helen L. Smits

Helen L. Smits
"It's very hard to say what motivates me. If I look back on the things I did that I really liked, I like making things work, I like making it easier to get the work done, and I like moving bureaucracy out of the way."
- Dr. Helen Smits

Induction Category:
Science & Health

Born: 1937

Inducted: 2009

Town: Old Saybrook

Throughout her career Dr. Helen Smits has been a policy shaper and a strong advocate for quality healthcare for all. Early in her career, she worked in community healthcare programs designed to provide care to underserved populations. More recently, her work has been with international health initiatives to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa. Regardless of the specific project, Dr. Smits’ compassion and caring have enabled her to affect multiple continents and make a difference in innumerable lives. She has also taught at Yale University and the University of Connecticut Health Center, where she served as the Director of John Dempsey Hospital.

The daughter of Ted Smits, a freelance sports writer and editor, and Anna Mary Wells, an associate professor of English at Douglass College, Smits was born in 1937 in Long Beach, Calif. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Swarthmore College and continued on to Yale University for a Master of Arts in English. She later returned to Yale where she graduated cum laude from the School of Medicine with an M.D. in 1967.

Smits became involved with health policy and healthcare management early in her career. In 1977, she was named Director of the Health Standards and Quality Bureau at the Healthcare Financing Administration, an agency under the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). This bureau sets standards for medical providers working with Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, and during her time with the agency Smits sought ways to assure high-quality care while improving the processes by which healthcare is delivered and managed in the U.S. In 1993, she became one of the few women to head a federal health agency when she was named Deputy Administrator and Chief Medical Officer of the Healthcare Financing Administration. As Deputy Administrator, she was appointed by then HHS secretary Donna Shalala to oversee a review of the Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to assess privatization options. After the review was completed and a list of recommendations to bring the Clinical Center into the 21st century presented, Smits was chosen to serve on the Center’s Board of Governors. In 1997, she was elected to the Institute of Medicine.

In 2002, Smits was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and taught in the Department of Community Medicine at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique. While in Mozambique she also volunteered with the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation to help draft the Ministry of Health’s plan to expand AIDS treatment and prevention. When, in 2003, the U.S. Congress passed the United States Leadership against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act establishing a 5-year, 15-billion dollar initiative to help developing countries around the world respond to AIDS and other public health crises, Smits served as Vice Chair of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). By 2007, her report indicated that the program had supported anti-retroviral therapy for more than 800,000 adults and children and HIV-tested nearly 19 million people. It is estimated that today more than 50,000 people world-wide are still living because of the work begun in 2003.

Now retired, Dr. Smits serves as a senior consultant to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s African Health Initiative, whose purpose is to support operations research related to AIDS prevention, care and treatment in Africa. She lives in Old Saybrook, Conn., with her husband Roger LeCompte, and together they continue to seek ways to improve healthcare around the world.

During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice

Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”

A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.

Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.

Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.

A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.

Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent.  Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.

The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.

Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.