Howard Koh

A world-renowned public health expert and physician, Howard Koh is a catalyst for change who cares passionately about raising the health standards of all people and preparing the next generation to lead with compassion.

Born and raised in the US, Koh is the son of Korean immigrants who instilled in their six children the foundations of true leadership. “That’s how we raised our children,” said Koh’s mother, “with a drive not just to excel, but also to serve.” His father was a Korean diplomat and international law scholar, while his mother is the chair and co-founder of East Rock Institute, the oldest Korean diaspora research organization in the US. 

Howard Koh graduated in 1973 with a BA from Yale College, where he was president of the illustrious Yale Glee Club, and earned his MD from the Yale University School of Medicine in 1977. He completed his post-graduate training at Boston Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital, serving as chief resident at both institutions. He also earned board certification in four medical fields: internal medicine, dermatology, hematology, and medical oncology. He later received a master of public health degree from Boston University (1995) while serving as a professor in its School of Public Health. 

While spending decades treating disease, Koh also channeled his personal drive and acumen toward disease prevention and public health, a focus that would come to define his career and lead to two high-level government appointments. 

His public service began at the state level when he was appointed by Governor William Weld as commissioner of public health for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from 1997 to 2003. As commissioner, he oversaw great advances in areas such as tobacco control, cancer screening, organ donation, and responses to bioterrorism in the period following the anthrax and 9/11 attacks in the US. Following this, Koh returned to his flourishing academic career, this time at the Harvard School of Public Health.

In 2009, he was appointed by President Barack Obama as the 14th assistant secretary for health in the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In this capacity, Koh served as the senior public health adviser to the HHS secretary and oversaw 12 core public health offices including the Office of the Surgeon General. During his tenure, Koh was instrumental in overseeing Healthy People 2020, the nation’s public health agenda, and promoting the disease prevention and public health dimensions of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. He also took the lead on numerous transformative initiatives such as decreasing health disparities by advancing outreach to underserved communities.  

Throughout his career in the public and private sectors, Koh has been a staunch proponent  of advancing tobacco control initiatives, taking a coalition-based approach. At HHS, he was the primary architect of the first HHS strategic action plan for tobacco control entitled Ending the Tobacco Epidemic. The plan included, for example, the Tobacco-Free College Campus Initiative aimed at encouraging the voluntary adoption of tobacco-free policies at universities across the US. Writing about this initiative in 2012, Koh argued that “deglamorizing and denormalizing tobacco use for adolescents and young adults can help our country reclaim a social norm of health and wellness.” 

After HHS, Koh rejoined Harvard University and is currently the Harvey V. Fineberg Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership and co-chair of the Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative. In these positions, he advances leadership education and training at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, and across the university. Known as an inspirational speaker, Koh lectures widely on leadership and health. ​

A prolific and highly-cited author, Koh has published more than 250 articles in the medical and public health literature and served as principal investigator for over $24 million in research grants. He is the recipient of more than 70 awards and honors in medicine and public health including the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award for National Service, the Sedgwick Memorial Medal from the American Public Health Association (its highest honor), and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Cancer Society. Koh is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and a fellow of the American College of Physicians.  ​

Howard Koh is married to Dr. Claudia Arrigg, whose parents were the children of Lebanese immigrants to the US. Her late father served as a trustee of the Lebanese American University. Dr. Koh and Dr. Arrigg have three adult children.