The Ohio State University Alumni Association

2020 Alumni Awards

Amy S. Acton ’96 MD — Alumni Medalist

This is the single highest honor bestowed by The Ohio State University Alumni Association, Inc. It is presented to alumni who have gained national or international distinction as outstanding representatives of their chosen fields or professions, bringing extraordinary credit to the university and significant benefit to humankind.

headshot of Amy Acton

Forever caring about others

A trusted advisor and calming presence as we began to navigate the pandemic, our alumni medalist is now a convener for kindness.

By Todd Jones

One could choose a multitude of words to describe Dr. Amy Acton ’96 MPH: insightful, dedicated, reassuring, compassionate, determined, collaborative. But even the longest list would be incomplete without “modest.” Her reaction to news that she had been selected as the 2020 Alumni Medalist, The Ohio State University Alumni Association’s top commendation, illustrates the point.

“I am beyond grateful and humbled by this tremendous honor,” she said, “and I feel it only right to share that my work serving on behalf of this honorable governor and our citizens would never have been possible without the support of my outstanding colleagues at Ohio State and the inspiration of the many global health students I had the great fortune of knowing over the years.”

The people of Ohio know Acton’s public persona well. As director of the Ohio Department of Health, she combined scientific facts with a calming, empathetic nature to serve as a guiding list and encourage a sense of shared responsibility as the COVID-19 crisis began upending lives in March.

“I will always believe and know that many, many lives have been saved because of the great advice from her and the great work she has done,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. “No one I’ve ever met has more passion for helping people, more passion for public health, than Dr. Amy Acton.”

Acton left her role as state health director in June, but served the next two months as chief health advisor for the Ohio Governor’s Office. DeWine voiced unwavering trust in her counsel on how best to suppress the virus. She also earned a time slot at his daily afternoon news briefings, where she helped educate Ohioans about COVID-19 and how we could best respond.

Acton’s candor cut through confusion. She offered reassurance each day, distilling weighty medical and public health concepts with compassion and straight talk. She rallied citizens to practice physical distancing and other safety measures, leading to a more gradual rise in coronavirus cases. Ohio gained attention nationally as an early model for a sound statewide response.

“Amy has that background, that understanding, that rootedness — so when she was speaking to us, she was supporting us,” says Dr. Teresa Long, special advisor for community engagement and partnership in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

Acton’s former Ohio State students recognized her approach during the pandemic news briefings as reflective of how she taught at the university off and on for 17 years, including as a full-time assistant professor of practice from 2012 to 2016. The College of Public Health awarded her an Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014–15.

“You see the knowledge and hopefulness,” Celia Wright ’15 said. “She communicates in such a distinct way that captures severity while also treading a path forward.”

Acton’s own path in life hasn’t been easy. Raised in Youngstown, Ohio, she was 3 when her parents divorced and her mother took custody of her and her brother. She lived in 18 different places in a 12-year period, including in a tent one winter, before eventually going to stay with her dad and his relatives.

Just as she confronted hardship in her youth, Acton faced challenges during the pandemic. DeWine strongly supported her stay-at-home order for Ohio. The two leaders relied on science in making difficult decisions, ones they knew would save lives but place the state’s economy in jeopardy.

“My focus — the need to protect Ohioans and save lives — was so intense, especially during those first days,” Acton said upon moving into the role of the governor’s chief health advisor. Later, she added, “My sincerest hope is that, together, we carry on the crucial work of public health to realize the dream that all Ohioans, and, in truth, all human beings, have the opportunity to flourish and contribute to their fullest potential.”

Acton resigned as chief health advisor in August to become director of the Columbus Foundation’s new Kind Columbus initiative, dedicated to spreading the words and actions of kindness as a defining value of central Ohio. When she accepted that new job, Acton said it had been a privilege to serve the people of Ohio, and she expressed deep gratitude to all Buckeyes: “Ohioans, you have saved lives.”

See all 2020 Alumni Award honorees