The Department of Global Health and Population (GHP) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health was the first department of population sciences with a focus on global health in any school of public health. For more than 60 years, faculty members, students, and researchers in the department have collaborated with a variety of governments, assisting and advising them on varied public health issues. GHP members have helped shape the field and launched some of the major ideas in global public health and population sciences, including health systems reform across nearly every continent, program evaluation, decision science, ecology of infectious diseases, maternal and child health, health economics, global burden of diseases, ethical issues in public health, and humanitarian issues, among others.
The department is renowned for its unique and diverse background of faculty and students and its global focus, and department alumni are part of a strong network of public health experts working to devise, implement and evaluate effective strategies that improve the lives of millions of people around the globe. Since its founding, GHP has welcomed students and fellows from most countries in the world, and GHP trainees have gone on to do great things, such as becoming ministers of health, leaders in national and international public health organizations, and scholars in academic institutions.
In 1962, the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, John C. Snyder, helped to establish the Department of Demography and Human Ecology to conduct research and to provide instruction in population problems and aspects of human ecology related to efforts to control and change the social environment. Snyder then became the Chair of the department and over the following decade, he would create six endowed professorships. In 1963, Snyder founded The Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies (the Pop Center), first led by Roger Revelle. The following year, the department would award its first MPH degree. Roger Revelle, while leading the Pop Center, was a professor in the department. His research examined population problems and suggested that unplanned population growth was more of a consequence of underdevelopment rather than the cause of it. This idea was new for the time and differed from accepted views. GHP continues this legacy today with research in population growth and reproductive health.
In 1969, the department’s name was changed for the first time to the Department of Population Sciences by the new Chair, Joseph Beasley. Beasley’s research focused on family planning, nutrition, and the organization and design of health delivery systems. In 1973, a new Chair was appointed, Nathan Keyfitz, who remained in the position until 1975. Keyfitz was considered the preeminent mathematical demographer of his day and was a pioneer in the application of mathematical methods to the study of populations. Keyfitz worked for extended periods in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India, focusing on the mathematics of population and the interconnections of population, development, and the environment. He wrote Applied Mathematical Demography, the foremost text on the application of demographic models. Today GHP continues that legacy through ‘global health methods,’ a concrete set of competencies in the design of research studies and translational programs, their analyses, interpretation, and synthesis. The department continues to contribute to generating new tools and solutions, and developing the means for deploying them to enhance health at the population and health systems levels.
The third department Chair and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies was David E. Bell, the Clarence Gamble Professor of Population Sciences and International Health. Bell had extensive experience in government, working as special assistant to President Harry S. Truman in 1951, and then as the first administrator of the US Agency for International Development in 1962 under President John F. Kennedy. After leaving government in 1966, Bell became Executive Vice President of the Ford Foundation. As department chair and center director, Bell worked daily, even after achieving emeritus status. Former University provost, Harvey Fineberg stated that “Bell was an invaluable guide to a generation of students and colleagues at every stage of their careers. Anyone privileged to work with him became better by the experience.”
In 1983 The Takemi Program on International Health was established at Harvard under the leadership of Dean Howard Hiatt, in partnership with Dr. Taro Takemi, who served as president of the Japan Medical Association for 25 years. The program emboldened their shared concerns about the processes of rational and equitably priority setting for health in situations of limited resources, especially in low- and middle-income countries, and the challenges of developing health leaders in those countries who can effectively improve national and global welfare. The program brings together mid-career professionals from around the world (as Takemi Fellows) to focus on the problems of mobilizing, allocating, and maintaining limited resources to improve health. Bell served as the Takemi Program’s first Director and Michael R. Reich was hired as the Program’s Executive Director and Lecturer in 1983 to launch the program, after he helped write the proposal to establish the new initiative in collaboration with Japanese partners. This program, with its endowment from Japan, provided an important research and training core for the Department and is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2023.
In 1988, Lincoln C. Chen became the next department Chair and Director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies and was appointed as the first Taro Takemi Professor of International Health, after serving as director of the Ford Foundation office in India. In 1990, Chen, Sunil Chacko, and David Bell, Secretariat for the Commission on Health Research for Development, release the Commission’s landmark report: Health Research: Essential Link to Equity in Development. The following year, the department was once again renamed, this time as the Department of Population and International Health. In 1993, Christopher Murray, Alan Lopez, and team authored the Global Burden of Disease Study, which estimated health gaps using disability-adjusted life years, and the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights was established, whose founding director was alumnus Jonathan Mann, previously director of the WHO Global Programme on AIDS. Under Chen’s time as department Chair, many new programs were created, including the MacArthur fellows program, later to be renamed the Bells Fellow program, after former Chair David Bell. The program still exists today, providing opportunities for research and leadership training in a two-year, non-degree program for researchers and practitioners in the field of population and development.
The International Health Systems Program (IHSP, originally named the International Health Systems Group) was founded during Chen’s tenure as chair as a multidisciplinary team of faculty, scholars, and experts working to improve healthcare systems in developing countries to enhance health and living standards for the poor and disadvantaged. IHSP brings together economics, clinical and public health science, politics, ethics, and management to increase knowledge of how health systems work; share this knowledge through teaching, training, technical dissemination, and publications; and apply this knowledge by providing technical assistance in improving the health status of those most in need.
In 1997, Michael Reich, a political scientist and director of the Takemi Program since 1988, became the next department Chair and was appointed as Taro Takemi Professor of International Health Policy. Reich worked closely with Professor Adetokunbo Lucas, a Nigerian public health leader and previous director of the Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) based at the World Health Organization. At Harvard, Lucas served as director of the Harvard International Health Leadership Forum (1991-98), an innovative one-week seminar for Ministers of Health from low- and middle-income countries. Reich also collaborated with Professors Marc Roberts, William Hsiao, and Peter Berman in teaching the Flagship Course on Health Sector Reform and Sustainable Financing, held in partnership with the World Bank, and in coauthoring their landmark book, Getting Health Reform Right: A Guide to Improving Performance and Equity (published in 2004 by Oxford University Press). This book continues to serve as a basic text for courses on health systems around the world and at Harvard.
In 2001, David Bloom, the Clarence James Gamble Professor of Economics and Demography, became Chair of the department and would remain in the position for the following decade. In 2003, Bloom, David Canning, and Jaypee Sevilla published The Demographic Dividend: A New Perspective on the Economic Consequences of Population Change. They examined the debate on how population growth affects national economies and synthesized current research on the topic.
The HSPH China Initiative was founded in 2005, and Yuanli Liu served as the founding director. The Initiative engages the Harvard community in conducting research projects in partnership with China’s leading academic institutions. In addition to these partnership projects, the initiative provides executive education programs with key government agencies for health in China, and hosts rising scholars as well as established academic researchers from peer institutions as part of their commitment to advance cooperation and grow academic talent. Also in 2005, the university-wide Harvard Humanitarian Initiative was created under the leadership of Jennifer Leaning and Michael VanRooyen. In 2008, Bloom would change the department’s name once again, this time to the current title, the Department of Global Health and Population, to reflect the department’s evolving interests.
In 2010, the Dean’s Flagship Women and Health Initiative (W&HI) was launched with Ana Langer serving as the founding director. W&HI was created in recognition of the idea that girls and women experience increased risks of injustice and ill health within the health sector due to social and gender inequality globally. W&HI focused on women’s health needs and women’s critical roles as both formal and informal participants in healthcare systems. A central concept within W&HI is female-driven solutions grounded in gender equality and women’s empowerment to strengthen health systems to better address women’s needs.
In 2011, Wafaie Fawzi became chair of the Department. In 2015, thanks to a gift from Harvard alumni, Swati and Ajay Piramal, the India Research Center was opened. The Center was designed to facilitate the development of new strategic relationships and build upon existing ones with organizations across India, and provides logistical support for its strategic goals of research, teaching, and knowledge translation and communication already underway by the School’s faculty and students and their collaborators. The Center is engaged in many diverse projects, developing cases for the School’s DrPH program, convening workshops and symposiums on important public health topics, and designing a national communication strategy on mental health for the Indian ministry of health and family welfare, among many others.
In 2016, Goodarz Danaei took over The Bernard Lown Scholars in Cardiovascular Health Program (founded in 2008) as director, housing the program within the department. The Program is designed to create an international cadre of talented health professionals who will use public health tools and strategies to prevent cardiovascular diseases and promote cardiovascular health in developing countries. The department’s first PhD cohort also began in 2016. In 2018, the school-wide Harvard China Health Partnership was formally created to provide a platform for faculty across campus to advance scholarship on China in collaboration with seven different institutions, and Winnie Yip became director of the program.
In January 2019, the department gained its first female Chair, Marcia Castro, who also directs the Brazil studies program at Harvard University. By December, the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic was a call to arms for the department as faculty engaged in COVID-19 work around the globe. Department faculty appeared in a wide variety of media as subject experts, served as advisers to government agencies, published papers addressing the COVID-19 response worldwide, and hosted seminars to discuss countries’ strategies for addressing the pandemic.
The QuEST (Quality Evidence for Health System Transformation) Network was implemented in 2020, and seeks to build the evidence base to support the transformation to high-quality health systems by improving measurement, testing solutions, and creating generalizable knowledge in partnership with researchers and change makers. The network works to accomplish this mission by producing and sharing rigorous and policy-driven research, generating global public goods, expanding global interest in funding for innovative, large-scale health system quality research, translating research and promoting evidence-based policies, and mentoring the next generation of health system scientists. In 2021 The Future of Health and Economic Resiliency in Africa (FHERA) was established in collaboration with The Lancet, and is co-chaired by Muhammad Ali Pate, Professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership in GHP and Minister Prof. Awa Coll Seck, Minister of State in the Presidency Senegal. Core panel membership comprises key leaders, academics, policymakers, and practitioners from African and global institutions. The Initiative is a multi-stakeholder, multisector platform of panel members, positioned at the intersection of policy, research and scholarship, and actions for impact on the African continent. It aims to contribute towards the emergence of a better future for health and economic resiliency in Africa, based on experiences before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GHP today continues to maintain strong partnerships with the FXB Center on Health and Human Rights and the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and is home to the Takemi Program on International Health, the International Health Systems Program, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Of particular note are the department’s regional initiatives, the China Health Partnership, the India Health Partnership, and the Africa Health Partnership, which allow special emphasis on some of the world’s regions that face particular public health challenges and that have shown innovations in addressing these challenges. The department’s major research areas include social and economic development, health policy, and demography. Areas of focus include design and financing health care systems, program evaluation, decision sciences, health economics, women’s and children’s health, prevention and control of infectious and chronic diseases, global nutritional epidemiology and practice, environmental change and health, health equity and human rights, and humanitarian crisis and disaster response.
After six decades, the contributions the department has made to global health are significant and continue to grow and evolve.