Drs. Eugene and Rose Gangarosa: Public Health Champions for Safe Water as a Human Right

Drs. Rose S. and Eugene “Gene” J. Gangarosa, MD, MS, EIS '65 have a long-standing passion for public health and are linked to the CDC Foundation by their dedicated support, including their two endowed funds focused on safe water.

During Gene’s 70-plus-year distinguished career, his primary area of focus was enteric infections, the name for any disease caused by an intestinal infection, like cholera. This gave him a unique vantage point on the introduction of modern treatment, control and prevention of intestinal infections in developing countries. He served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—where he received the William C. Watson Jr. Medal of Excellence, CDC's highest honor—American University of Beirut and Emory University School of Medicine. He played a key role in the evolution of Emory's graduate program, now known as the Rollins School of Public Health. For this achievement, he received the Thomas Jefferson Award, Emory University's highest honor. In 2020, the Rollins School of Public Health announced their second named department: the Gangarosa Department of Environmental Health, in honor of the Gangarosa endowment.

Photo via David Snyder/CDC Foundation

One of Gene’s key research findings in cholera patients laid the groundwork for the creation of oral rehydration therapy (ORT), a technique to replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sickness. This simple and inexpensive procedure is lauded by the World Health Organization as "the medical advance of the twentieth century," estimating that ORT had saved over 50 million lives in the first 40 years since its development.

Gene's long and illustrious career can be traced back to his personal family story. In his autobiography But Now They Are Angels: Reflections on my Life in Service to Public Health, he explains that his family lost four children when they were just toddlers in Italy, most likely because they lived in proximity to poultry and were exposed to disease-causing organisms as they handled the animals. They also had no home plumbing and no indoor toilet. Toddler deaths were not unusual in that era, but these many deaths in succession raised cruel questions about his mother's competence. Her guilt and grief were profound and unfathomable. To comfort his mother, the family priest reassured her with the words: "But now they are angels," giving her a sense of meaning from the tragic losses.

This quote has driven Gene throughout his life. "I now see my deceased siblings as the better angels of my nature. I imagine my long-departed siblings as guarding angels for all the unknown and unknowable children whose lives have been saved by public health initiatives, acting through the many capable colleagues with whom I have worked." The family treasures a sculpture of four angels carved in Italy, a serendipitous nod to Gene's father, a sculptor.

Rose, too, saw firsthand the life altering impact that lack of access to safe water could have during her career as an educator. She taught piano and high school English and served as principal at the Lahore American School in Pakistan. She also spent time as a volunteer librarian at the American University of Beirut. Her experiences both in the United States and abroad gave her a deeper understanding of the struggles that some families face in providing basic necessities for their children. Firmly believing in safe water as a human right, she pledged to do what she could to make a difference.

Photo via David Snyder/CDC Foundation

Gene and Rose care deeply about access to safe water, which has a direct impact on child survival rates. Today, more than 780 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water and another 2.5 billion people lack proper hygiene education to help prevent illness and death from disease. To help address the depth of need they both witnessed, Gene and Rose established the Gangarosa Endowment for Safe Water in 2000 to provide an ongoing source of support for CDC's safe water initiatives. In 2016, the Gangarosas established a second fund, the Peggy, Paul and Ray Gangarosa Endowed Fund in honor of their children. Both endowments now provide support to College of Charleston student practicum experiences supervised by CDC scientists. These experiences further student career development and support CDC-led, globally-focused safe water initiatives.

According to Gene, "CDC's Safe Water Program provides us such a unique opportunity to help by addressing in a meaningful way one of the most pressing public health needs of our time—safe water for all. Rose and I know of no better investment in our children's future than this to save lives, improve quality of life and contribute to global stability.” To ensure their lifesaving work will continue, the Gangarosas have chosen to support their funds beyond their lifetimes through a generous personal bequest with their family foundation, the Gangarosa International Health Foundation, enabling the Gangarosas to protect health and save lives in perpetuity.

In addition to their significant and incalculable contributions to public health around the world, Drs. Gangarosa are humble, gracious and kind people with a tremendous desire to help others. Married for over 70 years, they have maintained their steadfast dedication to safe water initiatives together. Much like their marriage, it is a commitment built day-by-day over the course of their lifetimes.