A Great Danish American Birthday - Reimert Ravenholt

  • March 09, 2022
  • March 09, 2023
  • 2 sessions
  • March 09, 2022 (CST)
  • March 09, 2023 (CST)


From the Seattle Times - 

Reimert Thorolf Ravenholt was born in West Denmark, Wisconsin, March 9, 1925, the sixth of ten children of Ansgar and Kristine Petersen Ravenholt. 

Reimert was raised on the family's small dairy farm which had been homesteaded by his Danish immigrant grandparents. Reimert remained deeply proud of his Danish heritage throughout his life and greatly enjoyed maintaining Danish traditions within his family and among his friends especially during the holidays. 

After graduating from the Luck, Wisconsin, High School in 1943, Reimert went to Minneapolis where he entered an accelerated pre-med and medicine program at the University of Minnesota from which he was graduated with an M.D. degree in 1951. After a residency at the VA Hospital in San Francisco, Reimert was recruited by Dr. Alex Langmuir into the second class of the Epidemic Intelligence Service of the Centers for Disease Control. This began his life-long involvement in epidemiology. 

Reimert came to Seattle in the early 1950s to work as Director, Epidemiology and Communicable Disease Control Division, for the Seattle-King County Health Department. From this position, he organized and oversaw the first mass immunization of Seattle school children with the Salk vaccine against polio; traced an outbreak of staphylococcal infections among new mothers in Seattle to the lack of appropriate handwashing and other sanitary protocols in the newborn nurseries of local hospitals; undertook what was likely the first epidemiological survey by telephone; and provided the water-borne disease surveillance that supported the creation of a sewer system around Lake Washington. 

In 1956, Reimert earned a Masters in Public Health degree from the University of California/Berkeley from which he was graduated first in his class. In 1962, Reimert was named an Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Washington. During this period, he began his life-long crusade against the negative health impacts of tobacco use which he termed "tobaccosis." Among other actions, he undertook some of the earliest epidemiological research among mothers of newborns that demonstrated the adverse impact of the mother's smoking history on the birth weight of her child. In collaboration with the editor of the student newspaper, he helped stop the free sampling of cigarettes to students on the UW campus and the sale of cigarettes on campus to minors. He also successfully lobbied for the removal of cigarette vending machines from the UW Hospital. 

From 1966-1979, Reimert served as the first Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Population (now Population and Reproductive Health). When he took charge of USAID's nascent population program in 1966, the program had no staff, budget, or mandate. Few developing country governments outside of Asia wanted anything to do with subjects as controversial as population growth and family planning, and there was great debate about whether family planning programs worked. Many doubted that couples would use family planning services and, if couples did use them, that the services would have any impact. But Reimert believed that people would use family planning and that it would have a global demographic impact. He was right. 

During his 14-year tenure, USAID's global population/family planning assistance program became the world's foremost population program, providing more than half of all international population/family planning program assistance ($1.3 billion) during those years. Many of the approaches that were pioneered under Reimert's leadership, such as routine survey data collection (He originated the World Fertility Survey, the precursor of the Demographic and Health Survey, which stands today as the gold standard of household survey data collection in the developing world.), working through non-governmental organizations, social marketing, and community-based services continue today as standards of strong voluntary family planning programs. He was a pioneer in international family planning, a champion of every woman's right to control her own fertility. 

Throughout his career, Reimert applied his creative intellect and his persistent effort to some of the largest public health issues of his time. The success he achieved was due in great part to his relentless focus on the bottom line. Concern for political expediency or political acceptability was not a factor in his action plan. 

After retirement in 1987, Reimert returned to Seattle to be near all his children. In Seattle he was an active participant in the Danish Club and a member of the Northwest Danish Association and National Nordic Museum. 

More from the Seattle Times

Reimert loved sharing and discussing ideas. No tradesman or friend left his house without a copy of at least one of his articles and a strong memory of his intellectual passion. He was an open-hearted, generous man who did not bear grudges or carry resentments through his life. "Understanding brings forgiveness," he often said. Hospitality was at his core. Everyone was welcomed and well fed. To say that an event at the Ravenholts' home had been "hyggelig" was, in his opinion, the highest praise. Reimert was devoted to his wife and family and was a large presence in their lives. His last "job" - being bedstefar to his grandchildren and oldefar to his great-granchildren - was perhaps his favorite. 

Ravenholt, 95, died October 1, 2020, at his home in Seattle, Washington.

Published on October 25, 2020

National Foundation for Danish America
PO Box 1003
Wilmette, Illinois 60091

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