Harvard Public Health Review
Winter 2005




The Compounding Power of Public Health

In addressing the first meeting in October 2003 of the Leadership Council of the School of Public Health, Harvard University President Larry Summers said, "There is no other area of human endeavor in which the application of thought and resources can make so profound a difference in as many people's lives as in the work of public health. And that is why this School is so profoundly important to the mission of the University." Our aims in this special 2004 Annual Report issue of the Review are to share a few examples that demonstrate how the Harvard School of Public Health has had a real impact on the health of people, and to acknowledge all of those whose efforts and support have made these contributions possible.


The fundamental missions of the Harvard School of Public Health can be thought of as the generation of new knowledge through research and creative thinking; the transmission of knowledge to the next generation of scholars and practitioners; and the communication of knowledge learned to the public, policy makers, and industry, with the aim of promoting health and preventing disease. Nobel laureate Lord George Porter of the U.K. once said, "There are two kinds of research, applied research, and not yet applied research." Clearly not all research results in the short term in tangible impacts on health, and not all scientific impacts can be communicated in a brief summary. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions, and so the tradition at HSPH has been to create multidisciplinary collaborations to address major public health problems in populations. Each of us in our own way seeks to create knowledge that can, to some degree, change the world. And that is ultimately the greatest reward we can have in our professional lives.

The interaction of knowledge and people at the School has led to many significant achievements which have evolved from the three main domains of public health: the probabilistic sciences, such as biostatistics and epidemiology; the mechanistic sciences of biology and molecular biology; and the social and policy sciences. Beginning on page 7 of this publication, we describe a few of the landmark contributions by our faculty and students that we believe have had a demonstrable impact on improving the health of people in this country and beyond. (I caution that I could have chosen many others as significant. And to those who would like to pursue the School's historical contributions further, I recommend an engaging history of public health and the School by Robin Marantz Henig, The People's Health.)


In this issue of the Review, we provide a current sampling of HSPH contributions that reflect the creativity of our faculty and students, as well as the extraordinary collaborations that occur across domains and disciplines within the School, and with others at Harvard and around the world. Some are devoting their research to waging the uphill battle against the leading cause of preventable death and disease, tobacco. Others are documenting ways in which the U.S. legal system perversely perpetuates child and spousal abuse in the wake of separation and divorce. Still others are working at the laboratory bench to understand the complex molecular connections between obesity and type 2 diabetes, chronic conditions that have emerged in force and are now on the rise in developing as well as industrialized nations. And across Harvard, our faculty members are helping to design "green" buildings on campus, living laboratories that demonstrate novel ways of conserving energy and resources while also keeping workers and students healthy. We hope this sampling will convey some of the diversity of scholarly activities at the School of Public Health that makes it such an exciting place in which to work and study.

Perhaps the greatest institutional challenge we have begun to think seriously about is defining what the shape of public health research and education will be in the next decade and beyond. The great stimulus has been the opportunity to be part of the planning for a proposed new campus in Allston. The potential for the School to relocate there over the next decade has provided a crucible in which the entire School community must come together to consider how we will redefine what we should be doing and teaching, and what public health ought to be doing over the coming decades.

In its educational mission, HSPH has been privileged to have had so many of the brightest students in the country and the world come and share their knowledge and diverse experience with our community. The School has trained a great many students who have become leaders of public health worldwide, including six of eight directors of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one former Director-General of the World Health Organization. But much of the great work of public health is done by often unsung HSPH graduates in virtually every city and state in this country, and in almost every nation around the world. We now have at the School nearly 900 students representing more than 50 countries, from Afghanistan to Iran, Iraq, Estonia, Moldova, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, as well as China, Japan, and countries of Latin America. These graduates, informed by their training at the School, will in their own right truly make a difference. Albert Einstein famously referred to compound interest as "the greatest mathematical discovery of all time." If one considers the compounding power of education, it is clear that providing a great education to bright and motivated students--who return to their cities, states, and countries and train more leaders and public health practitioners--is the greatest investment we can make in the future.


Of course, we appreciate every day that our work would be impossible without the sustaining support of our many donors and friends, whose contributions are acknowledged in our annual Volunteer and Gift Report. We are deeply grateful for their commitment to our mission. Through their efforts, they enable us at the School to address new issues and take on new challenges. This in turn empowers the School of Public Health to make its scholarly contributions to this great University. Universities and their faculties are places of intellectual ferment, innovation, and questioning. They are constantly changing, and yet endure. And none is more special than Harvard University. Clark Kerr, late chancellor of the University of California, once said "Taking, as a starting point, 1530, when the Lutheran Church was founded, some 66 institutions that existed then still exist today in the Western World in recognizable form: the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man, and 62 universities." This University, and its School of Public Health, will endure for many reasons, not the least because of the committed engagement of so many who share our vision of creating a healthier world.

Barry R. Bloom
Dean of the School
Joan L. and Julius H. Jacobson II Professor of Public Health

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Copyright, 2005, President and Fellows of Harvard College