Symposium honors 60-year legacy of HSPH’s Melvin First

HSPH Prof. Emeritus Melvin W. First

October 21, 2011 — Family, colleagues, and former students traveled from across the world to celebrate the life and career of HSPH Prof. Emeritus Melvin W. First at a memorial symposium on September 30, 2011. First passed away on June 11 at age 96.

A member of the HSPH community for more than 60 years, First began as a research fellow in 1947 and stayed active in research and teaching long past his retirement in 1985. Working his way up in what was then called the Department of Industrial Hygiene (now the Department of Environmental Health), he ultimately became a professor of environmental health engineering in 1971.

First led the HSPH program in air cleaning and ventilation for nearly 40 years and was recognized internationally for his research and field applications of air filter theory, operation, and maintenance, and of nuclear air cleaning systems. For the past two decades, he was deeply involved with international air disinfection research aimed at controlling pathogens such as drug-resistant tuberculosis and influenza.

Former student Jack McCarthy, SM ’78, SD ’87, spoke about the legacy of Mel First’s work in environmental health.

[[Doug Dockery]], chair of the Department of Environmental Health, called First the “cornerstone of the department,” noting that First’s years at HSPH overlapped with all of the department’s chairs, as well as with eight of the ten deans of the School.

“Professor First’s career resonates with the past, the present, and the future of the Harvard School of Public Health,” said HSPH Dean Julio Frenk. Public health was born out of the combination of biological science and the practical solutions crafted by sanitary engineers like First, he said. Frenk added that he sees engineering as a core discipline at HSPH and praised the innovative collaborations between researchers at the School and at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences in areas such as water and health, and nanotechnology.

When asked what he did, First would always proudly proclaim, “I am an engineer,” said Joseph Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, and former environmental health chair. First believed that the environment has a major impact on disease, and when no tool existed to measure air pollution, he and his colleagues created the tools they needed.

Former trainees and collaborators including HSPH Lecturer Stephen Rudnick reflected on the lasting impact of First’s work in environmental health during a panel discussion.

“Mel’s legacy is not lost,” said Brain. “It is growing and will continue for a long time.”

–Amy Roeder

Photos: Mel First–Sharon Bray/provided courtesy of the Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine; Jack McCarthy–Aubrey LaMedica