Our impact

For more than 100 years, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has worked to improve well-being around the world.

Harvard Chan School graduates are global leaders and renowned experts in virtually every aspect of public health. Our alumni have held highly influential positions as prime ministers, health secretaries, and leaders of global health initiatives. In the U.S., eight alumni have served as directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Our faculty have made groundbreaking discoveries and developed powerful solutions across a wide range of fields. Three scientists affiliated with the School have been awarded the Nobel Prize; others have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and been awarded MacArthur “genius” grants. Many hold memberships in the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Medicine.

Our impact includes these signature accomplishments, which represent just a sampling of the work our community drives forward:

Infectious disease

  • Changed our understanding of HIV/AIDS, including discovering and characterizing the virus that causes most HIV infections in West Africa; recognizing that the virus is transmitted through blood; and identifying the best approach to blood-bank screening. The School’s Center for Biostatistics in AIDS Research has supported the statistical integrity and quality of most government AIDS trials in the U.S. since 1995.
  • Revolutionized polio treatment and prevention, first by inventing the iron lung and then by discovering how to grow poliovirus in non-nerve tissue, which paved the way for the development of polio vaccine.
  • Unlocked the mystery of Lyme disease by determining that deer ticks transmit the agent that causes Lyme; describing the life cycle of this tick; and defined the role of deer and of mice in the transmission of this pathogen.

 Chronic disease

  • Transformed nutritional advice by discovering which fats are most damaging to health; demonstrating diet’s impact on coronary heart disease and diabetes; and identifying the strong links between diet, exercise, and cancer.
  • Invented the direct-current cardiac defibrillator, which has saved thousands of people suffering from erratic heart rhythms or cardiac arrest.
  • Developed statistical methods that led to the identification of genetic variants that increase susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases including breast cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes. 

Environmental and occupational health

  • Demonstrated a strong link between air pollution and mortality via the famed Six Cities Study, which led to a significant strengthening of the U.S. Clean Air Act.
  • Examined worker poisoning in the lead industry in the 1920s, leading to the first state legislation designed to safeguard workers’ health.
  • Established respiratory diseases as an occupational hazard through a study of cotton textile workers in Shanghai, with implications for numerous other industries.

Inequities and health disparities

  • Conducted seminal studies of patients with kidney and heart disease showing that low-income patients and people of color receive lower quality care, including reduced access to surgery.
  • Found higher risks of PFAS pollution in communities of color, highlighting the need for environmental justice initiatives.
  • Spotlighted substantial racial inequalities in the treatment of opioid use disorders, with white patients receiving medication up to 80% more frequently than Black patients after overdoses, infections, or detox admissions. 

Health policy and systems

  • Launched the “patient safety movement” by conducting the first survey of medical injuries and preventable medical errors in hospitals; later, led a WHO effort to design and institute a safe-surgery checklist, which saved lives and reduced costs.
  • Identified more efficient ways to screen for and prevent cervical cancer in developing countries, where it is a leading cause of cancer deaths in women.
  • Launched the discipline now known as health decision science with pioneering studies of the cost-effectiveness of medical interventions. Such studies, which introduced the concept of expressing cost in relation to quality-adjusted life-years saved, or QALYs, are now used to guide health care policy worldwide.

Social and behavioral sciences

  • Launched the “Designated Driver” campaign in the U.S. to curb alcohol-related traffic crashes, which contributed to a drop in fatalities of more than 25 percent.
  • Illuminated the hazards of second-hand smoke with a groundbreaking study linking exposure to lung cancer.
  • Documented binge drinking’s prevalence and effects through the Harvard College Alcohol Study, and proposed solutions to address the harms to both individuals and communities.