Message from the Dean: Wise Bets

Public health is all about risk prevention—and risk taking. When I read through this issue of Harvard Public Health, that dual truth was underscored for me.

Donald Hopkins, MPH ’70—the eminent subject of our cover story—has spent his professional life taking on inconceivably daunting public health challenges, starting with his pivotal work in the late 1960s as a newly minted physician on the successful smallpox eradication campaign. For the last four decades, his attention has been focused on the global eradication of Guinea worm disease, one of the most horrific infections we know of. In that work, the first risk he took on, back in the 1980s, was convincing international public health leaders that this monumental goal was even achievable. In large measure because of Hopkins’ stubborn vision, the world caseload of Guinea worm disease has dropped from 3.5 million cases to, at last count, 26.

All of our Harvard Chan School faculty, students, fellows, and staff—including those featured in the Winter 2018 issue of the magazine—are well acquainted with risk calculations, both epidemiological and personal. Which makes me think of another form of risk taking: the risks that thoughtful philanthropists take in supporting the work of our School and our scholars. Our very profession owes its existence in large part to enlightened philanthropists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—names such as Rockefeller, Harkness, Kellogg, Kaiser, Kresge, and others.

Richard Besser, a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the School whose wide-ranging titles themselves bespeak a comfort with risk taking—former acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chief health and medical editor for ABC News, and now chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—describes the catalytic effect of philanthropy: “One of the nice things about being in philanthropy is that we can stay with a topic for the long term,” he says. “We’re not prone to political cycles. And we can take risks—try new things, even as we recognize that some of the things we try are not going to be successful.” (Read Besser’s thoughts on effective public health communication.)

Every year at this time in Harvard Public Health, we thank all of our generous donors, who make our teaching and research—and our own evidence-based risk taking—possible. In this annual gift report issue of the magazine, we describe some of the recent public health achievements of our Harvard Chan family. Your support—in gifts both large and small—is crucial to making our world healthier, more equitable, and filled with possibilities.

Michelle A. Williams, ScD ’91
Dean of the Faculty
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health