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In memory: Dr Alexander Kessler, co-founder of HRP

Portrait photo of Dr Alexander Kessler

Dr Alexander Kessler, the first director of HRP from 1972 to 1983, died on 30 December 2020 at the age of 89. Regretfully, but with gratitude for the working legacy left behind, the HRP community celebrates the life of this visionary scientist. 

Alexander, or Alex as he was known, earned his MD following studies at Harvard and Columbia Universities and his PhD. from Rockefeller University. After further work in the US Army, he was recruited to WHO, in 1966 leading the first Human Reproduction Unit with a mandate to advise Member States on family planning.

This early work was critical in driving momentum and funding for a feasibility study Alex led in support of a special WHO research programme in the field of human reproduction. Under his dynamic and determined leadership, consultants and WHO staff visited 69 institutions in 23 countries in just a few months.

Despite growing global recognition of the demographic and health implications of human reproduction, including on the status of women, family planning was not an easy issue to address at that time. Yet the ensuing feasibility report was so compelling that WHO agreed to take on a specific programme on the subject and search for funding to begin  its first year of operation.

This new Expanded Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction was established in 1972: a bold commitment to the global future of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and a new model for international collaboration in research and development. Such foresight is born out in the subsequent establishment of several special programmes within WHO, as well as HRP’s ongoing success. 

Working alongside his trusted advisor Professor Egon Diczfalusy from the Karolinska Institute, Alex and his deputy, Tabitha Standley, set about building a network of regional and clinical research and training centres, multidisciplinary task forces, and a system of support for research resources in low-resource settings – essential activities which continue to this day.

Alex’s commitment to improving the lives of people around the world was fundamentally global – an outlook that mirrored his own life’s journey across citizenship in several countries. Born in Austria but German as a result of the Anschluss, Alex and his family arrived in the US in 1941. They traveled via Portugal on the last sealed train allowed by the authorities to pass through France and Spain. 

In both his professional and personal lives, Alex thrived on vigorous debate and enjoyed a good discussion between differing points of view. He was intellectually curious and rigorous, keen and demanding in challenging assumptions and stereotypes. His interests ranged widely, from his great love of music, theatre and poetry, to politics and literature.

Until the very last years of his life, Alex was a keen hiker. Friends and family retain indelible memories of trying to keep up with him, whether in the Swiss Alps or on the English heath. 

We at HRP will continue to keep pace with both the original vision for HRP and to push further as Alex would have liked: striving for a world where all people’s rights to enjoy sexual and reproductive health are promoted and protected.  

Read the original article at WHO website

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