Don Quixote, Machiavelli, and Robin Hood: public health practice, past and present

Am J Public Health. 2000 May;90(5):702-6. doi: 10.2105/ajph.90.5.702.


Since the mid-19th century, when the first formal health departments were established in the United States, commissioners, directors, and secretaries of public health have functioned as senior members of the staffs of public executives, mayors, governors, and presidents. They have provided important political, managerial, and scientific leadership to agencies of government that have played increasingly important roles in national life, from the sanitary revolution of the 19th century to the prevention of HIV/AIDS and the control of tobacco use today. Although public health officials come from a variety of backgrounds and oversee agencies of varied size and composition, there are philosophical themes that describe and define the commonality of their work. These themes are captured metaphorically by 3 celebrated figures: Don Quixote, Machiavelli, and Robin Hood. By turns, the public health official functions as a determined idealist (Don Quixote), a cunning political strategist (Machiavelli), and an agent who redistributes resources from the wealthier sectors of society to the less well off (Robin Hood.) All 3 personae are important, but, it is argued, Robin Hood is the most endangered.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Job Description*
  • Leadership*
  • Machiavellianism
  • Personality
  • Philosophy, Medical*
  • Politics
  • Public Health Practice / history*
  • United States