Dr. O’dell Owens, public health leader and fertility doctor, dead at age 74

Dr. O'dell Owens has been selected to receive the first Clara Barton Humanitarian of the Year...
Dr. O'dell Owens has been selected to receive the first Clara Barton Humanitarian of the Year award from the Greater Cincinnati Tri-State Chapter of the American Red Cross.(Cara Owsley/The Enquirer)
Published: Nov. 23, 2022 at 2:57 PM EST
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CINCINNATI (ENQUIRER) - Dr. O’dell Owens, a leader in health care and education in the Cincinnati region for decades who also was twice elected Hamilton County coroner, died on Wednesday, according to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer. He was 74.

Owens last served as president and chief executive officer of the health education nonprofit Interact for Health from 2016 until his retirement in March 2021. He also advised Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber recognized him as a “Great Living Cincinnatian,” the Enquirer reports.

Born and reared in Cincinnati’s West End, Owens held a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health from Yale University, where he also completed his residency, in obstetrics and gynecology. He completed a fellowship in reproductive endocrinology at Harvard Medical School and served as a clinical instructor in reproductive endocrinology.

Returning to Cincinnati in 1982, Owens established an in vitro fertilization program at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. He achieved Cincinnati’s first successful conception and delivery as well as the first pregnancy from a frozen embryo.

“I just made a promise to myself that since I had had some mark of success – way beyond what I was destined to be – I had to go back,” he said in an interview earlier this year.

Owens said in the interview that he had always worked to help children who could identify with him because he experienced poverty and racism in Cincinnati as a Black child whose mother died young, according to the Enquirer.

Owens’ father, the sole parent of seven children, struggled with the “demons” of gambling and drinking. And young O’dell learned his family was poor. “I remember someone bringing us a basket on Thanksgiving and I was so hurt,” he said, “because I always brought my two cans to school for the poor families.”

Owens’ credited Dr. Clinton Buford, a Black surgeon, his wife Cathryn Buford of Cincinnati and their extended family. Owens babysat for the Buford family as a teenager and they took him in and paved a path for him to enter college.

Owens was elected coroner in 2004 and re-elected in 2008. He served as president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and as interim Cincinnati health commissioner.

His long record of community service includes the board of the Cincinnati Fire Foundation; the Carl H. Lindner Jr. Family Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden; the Ronald McDonald House, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland’s Cincinnati Business Advisory Council. He was chairman of the Cincinnati Preschool Promise.

For 29 years, he was on the U.S. Bancorp board of directors and had served on the boards of UC, Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, Cincinnati Red Cross, Fine Arts Fund (now ArtsWave) and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. For 10 years, he has volunteered as chair of the annual CET Action Auction that supports Cincinnati’s public television programming.

At the end of 2020, Owens donated 54 acres that he owned in Walton, Kentucky, to the city to become a park.

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