This public health leader has devoted her career to improving the health of women and girls in some of the world’s poorest countries

by Nancy Shohet West ’84

On a CA reunion weekend upended by a pandemic, it seemed particularly fitting that this year’s recipient of the Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service was an alumna whose work has focused on issues of global health. Although she couldn’t receive the award in the Chapel, Anne Pfitzer ’85 none- theless held an online audience riveted as she described the particular challenges of her decades-long career in service to the well-being of women and girls throughout the world.

Raised in Switzerland by parents who were themselves in the field of global devel opment, Pfitzer, daughter of Katherine Motley Hinckley ’61, P’85 ’87, never thought she had much aptitude for the sciences while at Concord Academy. At Columbia, she majored in comparative literature, and in her senior year of college she moved to Kenya to teach English to children in a rural village.

There, she witnessed first- hand the deleterious effects that substandard public health can have on the development of children and teens. Her students sometimes missed school for weeks on end due to malaria outbreaks. She encountered the stark reality of the particular problems for women in low-resource coun- tries one afternoon when her students rushed to her, plead- ing that she help one of their classmates. Pfitzer found the young teen in a field, bleeding severely from a self-induced abortion; she spent the next several hours in crisis mode locating scarce medical services for the girl.

Anne Pfitzer ’85. Photo by Andre Parker.

The Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service is the sole award bestowed at Concord Academy— not to a student, but to an alumna or alumnus. Established in 1976, the award honors Joan Shaw Herman ’46, who was paralyzed after contracting polio the summer after her graduation. Although confined to an iron lung, she worked constantly to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Each year, a CA graduate is honored with this award for service to others.

After returning to the United States, Pfitzer thought more about a career in public health. “The ability of women to control what happens to their bodies has been something I’ve always cared about deeply,” she says. She used the next 18 months to try out a variety of temp jobs, including one in the field of public health that cemented her commitment to this area of study. From there, she enrolled in a master’s degree program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

“The ability of women to control what happens to their bodies has been something I’ve always cared about deeply.”

Anne Pfitzer ’85

 Drawn to the challenges of addressing women’s health in low-resource countries, particularly in regard to family planning, maternal-newborn health and survival, and HIV/ AIDS prevention, Pfitzer joined Jhpiego, a nonprofit affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. Her on-site international postings in the years that followed included Ethiopia and Indonesia, where her organization partnered with local organizations and universities to expand training, research, outreach, and education.

After returning to the United States, Pfitzer thought more about a career in public health. “The ability of women to control what happens to their bodies has been something I’ve always cared about deeply,” she says. She used the next 18 months to try out a variety of temp jobs, including one in the field of public health that cemented her commitment to this area of study. From there, she enrolled in a mas- ter’s degree program at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

Drawn to the challenges of addressing women’s health in low-resource countries, particularly in regard to family planning, maternal-newborn health and survival, and HIV/ AIDS prevention, Pfitzer joined Jhpiego, a nonprofit affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. Her on-site international postings in the years that followed included Ethiopia and Indonesia, where her organization part- nered with local organizations and universities to expand training, research, outreach, and education.

Today Pfitzer lives in the D.C. area and leads the family planning team for USAID’s Momentum Country and Global Leadership project, led by Jhpiego, focusing on programming that provides women and girls in low-and middle-income countries around the world with accurate information about contraceptive choices and pregnancy prevention after childbirth.

In the current COVID-19 crisis, Pfitzer sees an opportu- nity for the general public to gain a better understanding of her discipline. “Epidemiology, understanding the way that transmission occurs, even the idea of flattening the curve: It’s like everyone on the street is now getting an education in Public Health 101,” she says. “What we knew about COVID-19 in August was different from what we knew in April. Every virus and epidemic is different, and public health experts have to accumulate evidence, question assumptions, and test the sci ence. Hopefully that is what people are learning from this situation: that science can do amazing things, but it takes time to test hypotheses and assumptions.”

Even as the pandemic rages on, she sees reason for hope in how it is affecting the world in terms of global participation. “The COVID- 19 situation has been very politicized, but the science is global,” she observes. “The level of collaboration and joint unity we are seeing in trying to tackle this problem is unprecedented. That is hugely encouraging.”

Do you know a CA graduate who embodies the school’s ideals of service and responsible citizenship? Nominations for the Joan Shaw Herman Award for Distinguished Service are welcome. Visit www.concordacademy.org/jsh for information.

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