Tribute to Richard Levins
by Arturo Cervantes, MD(1992), MPH (1993), DPH (1998)
When I arrived at Harvard in 1993, I was a recently-graduated medical doctor about to begin my master’s degree in public health in a time of idealism, optimism, and a desire to change and fix the world. At HSPH, I had the benefit of enrolling in classes with Dick Levins, who was an exemplary Professor there. He made a lasting impression and was an influence that has changed the direction of my work and of my life. The brilliance of his mind and the compassion of his heart have inspired and motivated me to pursue research and action with the interest of advancing health and human rights of disadvantaged populations.
I make a tribute and celebrate the life of this authentic and unique man, whose genius has inspired me. An extraordinary man, which along the way of obtaining a doctorate in public health at Harvard, patiently guided my training and contributed to building my thought process. As chair of my doctoral committee, Dick had a profound influence. I was a privileged student that was blessed with spending many hours with him over a time period spanning five years (1993–1998). He taught me how to think about how to integrate many factors that might affect human development and health outcomes, without the reductionist approach usually used to study complex phenomenon in health matters.
A major theme in social policy debate centers on the dichotomy of social causation versus individual responsibility. Dick offered a way to resolve this controversy by making me re-examine the organism/environment relationship, and by guiding me, in order to gain a deeper insight than the one offered by narrow determinism. All too often, scientists analyze social problems by isolating the factors involved, by simplifying, and by characterizing the effects of different pieces of a complex puzzle.
The theories and methods that Dick taught, have allowed me to view the social and health problems as a complex whole, and to understand the relational dynamics of the variables of interest. The insights gained from his type of qualitative mathematical methods have served to guide my career and research, and has also helped me to identify areas and directions were social systems can be pushed in order to move them towards the desired goal of health and well-being for all.
After a decade of public service, I am glad to observe an enormous population level impact of my actions, which is due to adequate public policy design and implementation. This is specifically evidenced in the field of un-intentional injury prevention in Mexico. Multisectoral, evidence based, ecological, comprehensive public health efforts have produced tangible results in Road Safety, with thousands of deaths averted and tens of thousands of years of life lost avoided, among my fellow Mexicans.
In a marginal situation —poverty, oppression, inequality, stress— the human system may become injured in several ways. The causal pathways of these diseases crosses back and forth across the boundaries that we impose to distinguish social, behavioral, economic, biological, psychological and other processes. But tracing the precise pathways by which poverty and inequality do their damage, cannot be allowed to detract from the more general conclusion, that social deprivation and inequality are bad for our health. Thank you Dick for the inspiration, for the example, the passion and the vision that you have taught and inspired.