Celebrating the legacy of Thailand’s “Father of Public Health and Modern Medicine”

Prince-Mahidol-Symposium_presidentOne hundred years ago, a young member of the Thai royal family gave up a promising military career to devote himself to the health and well-being of his people. As part of his new plan, Prince Mahidol Adulyadej of Songkla came to the U.S. to study public health at the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers (as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health was originally known).

On August 25, 2016 a symposium was held to honor the Prince’s contributions to public health and medicine in his country and to highlight the progress Thailand has made in public health and medicine over the past century, including improving drinking water, sanitation, and nutrition, and continuing more recently with adoption of universal health coverage in 2002. The event, held at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, was co-sponsored by Harvard Chan School, Harvard Medical School (HMS) and the King of Thailand Birthplace Foundation (KTBF).

Mr. Songkla

Prince Mahidol earned a certificate in public health from Harvard in 1921 and later returned to Boston to study at HMS, where he earned his MD cum laude in 1928. Throughout his studies, he preferred to be known as “Mr. Songkla,” and kept his royal identity a secret from classmates.

While at Harvard, the Prince negotiated an agreement with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide funding for education in medicine, nursing, and public health in Thailand. Upon his return home, he served in the Ministry of Education and presided over substantial upgrades to science and medical facilities in Thailand’s universities and implemented national public health policies. He died at age 37 from complications of kidney disease.

Cholthanee Koerojna of the King of Thailand Birthplace Foundation (left) with Joseph Brain
Cholthanee Koerojna of the King of Thailand Birthplace Foundation (left) with Joseph Brain

Prince Mahidol exemplified the School’s values, said Joseph Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology. “He wasn’t just coming to collect a Harvard degree. He understood how air and water quality, poverty, and occupation affect health, and he wanted to do something about it.” Brain cited one of Prince Mahidol’s quotes as a still relevant challenge for the School: “True success is not in the learning, but in its application to the benefit of mankind.”

Symposium celebrates connections

The symposium, which Brain and Scott Podolsky, associate professor of global Health and Social Medicine at HMS, helped organize, was attended by a delegation of Thai academics and physicians, including Professor Udom Kachintorn, president of Mahidol University in Thailand. Participants also included faculty from Harvard Chan School and HMS, as well as Simmons College, where the Prince’s wife Sangwan Talapat studied nursing. Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams delivered the University Marshal’s address, which celebrated the enduring connections between Thailand and Harvard.

Guests at a dinner following the symposium
Guests at a dinner following the symposium

On August 27, the King of Thailand Birthplace Foundationdedicated a new plaque at the site in Gloucester, MA where Prince Mahidol stayed prior to starting his studies at Harvard and during his time at Harvard. Gloucester was where Thai diplomats and their staff escaped the oppressive Washington, D.C., summers. It is now part of KTBF’s Trail of Thai Royalty in Massachusetts, which also includes the birthplace of the reigning King of Thailand, Prince Mahidol’s son Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was born at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.

While a student at Harvard, Prince Mahidol often returned to Gloucester to write a report for a class in sanitation taught by one of Harvard Chan School’s founders Milton Rosenau. The report, which Brain praised, assessed the town’s water quality, and also addressed deaths from the 1918 flu epidemic, occupational health among the town’s fishermen, and a range of other public health topics.

In recognition of the centennial, a portrait of the Prince presented to the School by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1960, which hung for decades in Shattuck International House, will have its frame restored by Thai craftsmen.

In another example of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s continuing relationship with Thailand, two faculty members are among recent recipients of the country’s prestigious annual Prince Mahidol Award: Michael  Marmot (2015), Bernard Lown Visiting Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences, was recognized as a pioneer in the field of social epidemiology; Richard Cash (2006), senior lecturer on global health, was honored for his work promoting the use of oral rehydration therapy to treat cholera and other diarrheal diseases, which is credited with saving millions of lives.

Amy Roeder

Photos: Sarah Sholes


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