Sharing knowhow and joining forces towards Health for All
President of Medicus Mundi International 1986-1991

In memoriam Hélène Besson (1932-2012)

A dedicated woman in a men's world: MMI President Hélène Besson at the MMI Assembly and Colloquium in Paris, 1987.  Photo found by Sake Rypkema in the MMI archives.
A dedicated woman in a men's world: MMI President Hélène Besson at the MMI Assembly and Colloquium in Paris, 1987. Photo found by Sake Rypkema in the MMI archives.

Hélène Besson was an active member of Medicus Mundi France in Paris. During the eighties she regularly attended the General Assemblies of Medicus Mundi International, and in 1982 she was chosen as a member of the MMI Executive Board. In 1987 the General Assembly elected her as President.

Hélène received her nursery diploma in Paris, in 1955. Her interest was focussed on training of health workers. She went to the London School of Hygiene for further training, and in 1965 she received her diploma in Public Health Education. 

Between 1965 and 1980 she worked as a public health educator in Iran, Yemen and Chad. Especially for her trainings programmes and leadership of health workers in remote areas, the Minister of Health of France honoured her with the medal “Officier du l'Ordre National du Mérite”, a much appreciated national decoration, initiated by President General de Gaulle.

Also in 1987 Hélène organised with Medicus Mundi France the MMI General Assembly in Paris with a colloquium on "Urgence aujourd'hui, santé demain” (emergency today, health tomorrow). Delegates of various Ministries of Health who attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva were invited by MMI to this conference: Finally 200 participants from 25 different countries attended the colloquium. In 1988, Hélène contributed to the Primary Health Care discussion at the World Health Assembly with an important paper on leadership in PHC.

The MMI presidency was not an easy period for Hélène. Members wanted a change in the MMI strategy, but the discussion was very controversial: Some wanted a much stronger professionalization of the office with a highly qualified executive secretary. Other wished to invest more on decentralized networking, restricting the role of the secretariat to administrative support. Hélène was much in favour of a professionalized secretariat, but serving a strongly federative MMI.

At the same time the MMI office had to leave the University of Nijmegen as its Institute of Healthcare in Developing Countries that was strongly linked with MMI and hosted the secretariat came to an end. For an international organization like MMI, Brussels, capital of the European administration, then became the place of choice. The move to Brussels was Hélène’s last act as a MMI President. 

Hélène was very dedicated to MMI and has led MMI through difficult waters. She was convinced that MMI had to start a new life. I cannot formulate better Hélène’s engagement and motivation than with her own words when she entered the MMI presidency:

"Sur un plan personnel il s'est agi pour moi d'une expérience de responsabilité á l'échelle internationale dont j'ai mesuré l'importance et la profondeur. Diffuser une politique de santé et plus encore une philosophie à but humanitaire n'est pas une petite affaire. J'ai mesuré l'importance de l'enjeu et toutes les conséquences qui peuvent en découler jusque aussi bien dans des petites coins fort reculés de notre planète que dans les grands pays".

Hélène Besson passed away on the 4th of November 2012, comforted by her fellow sisters, the Sœurs Auxiliatrices de Paris.

Sake Rypkema
Former MMI President

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