Richard E. Besser

President and CEO

Richard Besser, MD, is president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), a position he assumed in April 2017. Besser is the former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and ABC News’  former chief health and medical editor.

At RWJF, Besser leads the largest private foundation in the country devoted solely to improving the nation’s health. RWJF’s work is focused on building a comprehensive Culture of Health that provides everyone in America with a fair and just opportunity to live the healthiest life possible. Access to healthy food, clean air and water, safe housing, secure employment at a living wage, transportation, education, and the elimination of barriers from discrimination are all important contributors to health and well-being. 

In Besser’s role at ABC News, he provided medical analysis and reports for all ABC News programs and platforms. His weekly health chats on social media reached millions.

While at ABC News, Besser traveled all over the United States and around the globe to cover major medical news stories. He walked the Ebola wards in Liberia in 2014, reporting from the center of the deadly epidemic, and continued to provide extensive coverage for months. In 2011, he led ABC's global health coverage, "Be the Change: Save a Life," reporting on critical global health issues from seven different nations.

Before joining ABC News in 2009, Besser worked as director of the Coordinating Office for Terrorism Preparedness and Emergency Response at the CDC. In that role he was responsible for all the CDC's public health emergency preparedness and emergency response activities. He also served as acting director of the CDC from January to June 2009, during which time he led the CDC's response to the H1N1 influenza pandemic.

Besser’s tenure at the CDC began in 1991 working on the epidemiology of food-borne illness. He then served for five years on the faculty of the University of California, San Diego as the pediatric residency director, while also conducting research and working for the county health department on the control of pediatric tuberculosis. He returned to the CDC in 1998 as an infectious disease epidemiologist working on pneumonia, antibiotic resistance, and the control of antibiotic overuse.

The author or co-author of hundreds of presentations, abstracts, chapters, editorials and publications, Besser has earned many awards for his work in public health and for his volunteer service. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine. He received the Surgeon General's Medallion for his leadership during the H1N1 response, and in 2011 he accepted the Dean's Medal for his contributions to public health from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. His investigative reporting into umbilical cord blood banking was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2011. In 2012, he received an Overseas Press Club award as part of ABC's coverage of global maternal health issues, and two Peabody Awards as part of ABC News’ coverage of Hurricane Sandy and Robin Roberts’ health journey. In 2017 and 2018, he received an Emmy award for “Outstanding Morning Program” as part of the Good Morning America team. His book, “Tell Me the Truth, Doctor: Easy-to-Understand Answers to Your Most Confusing and Critical Health Questions,” was published by Hyperion in 2013.

Besser received his Bachelor of Arts degree in economics from Williams College and medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He completed a residency and chief residency in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.

He continues to practice as a volunteer pediatrician at the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton, N.J. He and his wife Jeanne, a food writer, have two sons, Alex and Jack.

New RWJF President Hits the Ground Learning

New RWJF President Hits the Ground Learning

Richard Besser, MD, RWJF President and CEO

New RWJF President Hits the Ground Learning

New RWJF President Hits the Ground Learning

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President's Corner

Dr. Richard Besser: Despite coronavirus, science is NOT telling us to close schools

Rich Besser advises we do all we can to keep children in school by providing the funds for proper staffing, equipment, protective gear and ventilation systems. Without these supports, we cannot expect schools to remain open.  

Covid-19 tsunami of suffering: The pandemic isn’t pausing; U.S. shouldn’t either

As the brutal COVID-19 winter looms, suffering in 2020 will continue well into the new year without actions by federal and state governments and a renewed commitment for people to follow public health guidance.

After Trumps' diagnosis: Vaccine or not, COVID-19 isn’t going away

Rich Besser shares five reasons why the finish line of the coronavirus pandemic is nowhere in sight, and why the people of America and our government must remain vigilant.

COVID in the White House Should be America’s Wake-Up Call

The First Family’s diagnosis is just the latest indication that we are nowhere near the end of this pandemic, writes Rich Besser, and we all need the support to survive and thrive.

We Can't Allow the CDC to be Tainted by Politics

Delaying or politicizing the CDC Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report would be a breach of public trust that could undermine the nation’s efforts to fight coronavirus, particularly in communities of color.

The pandemic shows America can't afford its dysfunctional health insurance system

For many of the nearly 28 million people in America without health insurance, complying with the CDC guidelines to stay home with COVID-19 symptoms is an impossibility, especially for people of color or those in low-wage jobs.

We ran the CDC. No president ever politicized its science the way Trump has.

Former CDC Directors Richard Besser, Tom Frieden, Jeffrey Koplan and David Satcher explain why the agency's guidance on reopening schools must be based on sound science, not political pressure—and centered on safety and health equity.

In our divided red and blue nation, coronavirus data is a uniting purple

Rich Besser highlights the importance of collecting, analyzing, and reporting data by race, gender, ethnicity, income and other demographics to understand who is being hit hardest by the pandemic and to guide states' response, recovery, and reopening plans.  

We Ran the CDC. Here’s How to Talk to the Public in a Health Crisis.

Rich Besser and former RWJF Trustee Jeff Koplan—each of whom led the CDC during public health emergencies—lay out the importance of regular, science-based and careful communications to inform the public during the “shared journey” of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On coronavirus, we know who will pay the price when states reopen before they should

Rich Besser explains that states attempting a premature return to 'normal' are sacrifycing those with the fewest choices.

Disabled Americans can't be a COVID-19 afterthought

Rich Besser and Rebecca Cokley, Disability Juctice Initiative director, highlight how COVID-19 continues to unearth uncomfortable truths about inequity.

Coronavirus Pandemic Highlights Insufficient Health Equity

Rich Besser argues that the coronavirus response is revealing inadequate health equity and public policy.

As coronavirus spreads, the bill for our public health failures is due

Rich Besser highlights health equity issues raised by the Coronavirus, as well as how past public policy failures are affecting our country's ability to cope.

Disability Inclusion in Philanthropy

Rich Besser and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker discuss why it is important for the field of philanthropy to be more open to people with disabilities.

From the Blog

Rich Besser’s Journey of Service

From his Princeton roots to his experiences as a pediatrician, public health practitioner and journalist, Rich Besser shares stories and lessons from a career dedicated to service in this Q&A.

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