Dr. Rice Leach, outspoken leader in public health at the local, state and national levels, dies at 75

RICE LEACH, M.D. (Lexington Herald-Leader photo)

Lexington Health Commissioner Rice Leach, a national, state and local leader in public health, died Friday of lymphoma. He was nine days short of his 76th birthday.

Lexington Mayor Jim Gray called Leach “a great man in every way: compassionate, committed, determined.”

Leach had been Lexington’s health commissioner for five years, leading it to national accreditation, and medical director and executive director of the local health department’s primary-care center for six years before that. He was Kentucky commissioner of public health from 1992 to 2004, and before that chief of staff to the U.S. surgeon general. He spent 26 years with the U.S. Public Health Service, mostly with the Indian Health Service, but also worked in Bolivia, Panama and Guatemala.

Leach’s outspoken nature endeared him to public-health officials who were not as disposed to strong public statements. His last campaign was for the establishment of needle exchanges to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV through needle sharing by users of heroin and abusers of prescription drugs. Citing research, he stoutly rebuked elected officials who said the exchanges promote drug abuse.

“He was intrepid in another explosive landscape, the one where science and politics intersect,” recalled Jamie Lucke of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “I was reminded of this by a recent report about states where propagandistic misinformation riddles the state-ordered briefing that women receive before an abortion. Kentucky is not one of them. I hesitate to publicize this because some politician will rush to change it. But our “informed consent” briefing is dispassionate, nonjudgmental and, above all, informative — much like Leach, who oversaw its drafting after the legislature enacted the mandate in 1998.”

Lucke added, “As admirable as all of that is, none of it accounts for why the people who worked for and with him loved him so very much. That would be his kindness and unfailing sense of fun. . . Nowadays you hear that doctors are demoralized by the business demands of their profession. Perhaps Leach’s fascinating life and and profound legacy will serve as a beacon guiding them back to public health — it might be less lucrative but potentially more fun and rewarding.”

Leach’s last recognition was the ‘hero” award from the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health, which renamed it the Dr. Rice C. Leach Public Health Hero Award. The award is usually given during National Public Health Awareness Week, which this year is April 4-10, but was presented in March because of his medical condition.

Leach is survived by his wife of 50 years, Mireille, whom he met in Guatemala; two sons, George, of Louisville, and John, of Frankfort; two grandchildren, Nicolas Cowan Whitcomb and Alyse Marie Whitcomb; and a brother, George Brown Leach, Jr. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Mary, who died of cancer in 2007.

His Mass of Christian Burial will take place in the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Frankfort at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 5, with visitation beginning at 10:30 a.m., Rogers Funeral Home in charge. In lieu of flowers, contributions are suggested to the church, 72 Shepherd Way, Frankfort KY 40601.

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