Ruth J. Katz is back in the nation's capital, right where she belongs. True, she has only been dean of The George Washington University's fledgling School of Public Health and Health Services since 2003. But it was here, 25 years ago, that she first put her passion for public health to work. Each step in her career has built on the last, bringing her full circle to a city--and a role--in which she can have real-world impact.

It was in 1980 that Katz earned an MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health to complement her law degree, then headed for Capitol Hill, bent on broadening access to health care for the underserved--women and children, minorities, the poor, and the aging. For over 10 years, she was counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Health and the Environment. Under its chair, Democrat Henry Waxman, Katz helped push through key legislation, including a law requiring federally funded clinical trials to include women and another providing compensation for children injured by vaccines. She also worked to overturn a ban on fetal tissue transplantation research, laying out a strategy later used to thwart attempts to block stem-cell work.

"It was so gratifying to work on legislation that made a real difference to real people," says Katz. But her tenure ended abruptly on Election Day, 1994. That night, she threw a party for 100 mostly Democratic colleagues, who fell stone silent as election results rolled in. Republicans swept both houses of Congress.

Soon Katz herself was running for office, hoping to shape and mold health care as a representative from New Jersey. Though she lost the race, she held on to a determination to make the health system better and more equitable.

Today, Katz is at the helm of Washington's first and only school of public health. Just nine years old, The George Washington University's School (G.W.) is like a gifted child with growing pains. An amalgam of different parts of the university, the School is headquartered in Foggy Bottom, sharing space with the medical center.

Securing a facility for the School to call its own is high on Katz's list. More broadly, she is building a place of learning in which every department will have a policy bent. "Health policy is taking research and turning it into reality," says Katz, the Walter G. Ross Professor of Health Policy, describing the School's niche. At G.W., students probe the roles of the public and private sectors in shaping policy issues ranging from environmental regulation to global vaccination. It's an emphasis that capitalizes on an ideal location, just down the street from Congress, the National Institutes of Health, the World Bank, and the Pan American Health Organization, where students can intern.

A top priority for Katz now is recruiting five new department chairs who will help her chart the School's course. Already she has led a revision of the curriculum. Starting next year, all first- and second-year students will take case-based courses on critical policy issues--flu vaccines, say--that cut across disciplines.

Colleagues say Katz is up to all these tasks. "Ruth has a great gut instinct, and once she decides on something, she's absolutely methodical about getting it done," remarks Tim Westmoreland, a professor at Georgetown University Health Policy Institute who worked with Katz in the 1980s. "Ruth's the kind of person who reads the newspaper, then actually works to fix things gone wrong. Every day brings a new cause to fight."

Lasting impressions
That much was evident early in Katz's career. As a young graduate of Emory University's law school, she practiced in Philadelphia for two years. But an abiding interest in public health lured her to Harvard.
" Across my academic career, I spent the shortest amount of time at HSPH--but in many ways, it had the greatest impact," Katz says. There she forged lifelong alliances. Among her close classmates was Jonathan Mann, the late founder of the François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights at HSPH.

"It was Jon Mann who inspired me to include the Declaration of Human Rights in the 'tool kit' we give students at orientation," Katz says. That kit also contains a mock syringe, a vial of clean water, and other symbols of simple, low-cost public health strategies.

In a series of demanding roles, Katz honed her ability to lay out a vision and build consensus. After leaving Congress, Katz briefly directed public health programs for the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a leading funder of health policy research. In 1997, shortly after her failed election bid, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler, then dean of the Yale University School of Medicine, tapped Katz for the post of associate dean. For six years, she ran the day-to-day administration.

It was also at Yale that Katz experienced health care from the other side of the desk--as a breast cancer patient. She shared her perspective on the doctor-patient relationship, in all its complexity, with playwright Anna Deveare Smith, who spun the material into a one-woman show staged at Yale in 2000.

"Ruth considers even serious adversity a routine challenge," observes Carnegie Corporation President Vartan Gregorian, Katz's mentor of 30 years. "She's one of the smartest people I know, full of optimism and integrity. With all that, she will make a great dean."

To G.W., Katz brings "all that"--and passes it on, urging students to take leading roles in government, academe, and the nonprofit world. In turn, she says, she has a chance "to shape a public health school from the ground up.

"The thing I'm most proud of is helping influence students to give back through public service," Katz says. "Students at G.W., Yale, and Harvard get the very best training. Who could be better than they to lead?"

Kathryn Brown writes about science and medicine for HSPH, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, American Chemical Society, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and other organizations.

Photograph: Kent Dayton/HSPH

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