CM21hygiene sanitation pub health ngram 470

Big Data reveals big changes in public health

Just as Big Data is transforming public health research, so too is it giving us new tools to explore the history of public health.

One intriguing tool in this endeavor is of Google’s Ngram Viewer, which “sifts through millions of digitized books and charts the frequency with which words have been used,” in the words of a recent report on the National Public Radio program Studio 360.

Let’s take an example: From earliest days, Harvard School of Public Health—like the field of public health itself—was entwined with a push for improved sanitation and hygiene. Indeed, all three founders of the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers, which evolved into HSPH, were leaders in this burgeoning movement. George C. Whipple, who held the post of Gordon McKay Professor of Sanitary Engineering at Harvard, had a particular expertise in water supplies.  Milton J. Rosenau, a Harvard medical professor, was a leader in efforts to make US milk supplies pure and safe, and MIT’s William T. Sedgwick authored the 1902 treatise Principles of Sanitary Science and Public Health, described by one historian as “possibly the most potent single factor in awakening leaders in medicine, engineering, and science to the importance of sanitation in that era of rapid urban and industrial development.”

Over the years the prominence of these fields has waned, an evolution that is clearly reflected through the Ngram Viewer. If you enter the words “sanitation,” “hygiene,” and “public health” into the Ngram Viewer today—as we did to generate the chart above—you get a graphic snapshot of their interplay, with the usage of the phrase “public health” coming to far outpace the fields that fueled its rise.

Now it’s your turn!

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Is there an event, person, or discovery in Harvard School of Public Health history that you’d like to read about? Send your suggestions to centennial@hsph.harvard.edu.

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