Harvard School of Public Health celebrates 100 years of global health leadership

Centennial banners on Kresge

Oldest continuously operating school of public health in U.S. looks forward to second century of improving the lives of millions worldwide

For immediate release: Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Boston, MA — In Fall 2013, Harvard School of Public Health will celebrate 100 years of discoveries and interventions by its faculty, alumni, and students that together have helped to increase life expectancy by a quarter-century and improved the health of millions worldwide since the School’s founding in 1913.  Established 100 years ago as the Harvard-MIT School for Health Officers, Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) is the longest continuously operating school of public health in the U.S.  Throughout its history, the institution’s faculty, alumni, and research have been at the global forefront of preventing and eradicating diseases, creating healthier environments, improving global response to humanitarian disasters, and devising ways to deliver health care more effectively.

Major public health accomplishments that Harvard School of Public Health faculty and alumni have helped make possible include: elimination of  deadly smallpox from the planet; prevention of millions of polio deaths; efforts that have made the air we breathe in the U.S. much cleaner and safer;  discovery of  the dangers of second-hand smoke; prevention of millions of deaths from cholera and similar diseases in children worldwide; reductions in the use of trans fats in the food supply; and creation of the “Designated Driver” campaign in the U.S., which has led to the prevention of countless deaths due to drunk driving.

Beginning in September and throughout the 2013-2014 academic year, the School will celebrate its centennial with a series of activities and events that will look back at the institution’s past accomplishments and, more important, look forward to consider how the School’s faculty, students, and alumni can create a healthier world in the years ahead.

Huge increase in life expectancy

Over the last century, life expectancy in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world increased by an astonishing 30 years. No fewer than 25 of these years are credited to public health measures, many of which are linked to work done at HSPH. A few of the key accomplishments by the School’s faculty and alumni include:

  • Smallpox eradication: HSPH Alumnus William Foege and colleagues developed the “surveillance and containment” vaccination method, which made eradication possible without vaccinating an entire population; the last naturally occurring case of smallpox was reported in 1977.
  • Smoke-free workplaces: In 1981, HSPH’s Dimitrios Trichopolous and colleagues proved that secondhand smoke from cigarettes increases the risk of lung cancer, a discovery that led to smoke-free workplaces and public spaces.
  • Overcoming polio: HSPH’s Thomas Weller and colleagues at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital won the Nobel Prize in 1954 for discovering a way to grow polio virus in non-nerve tissue cultures, which paved the way for the development of polio vaccines. Today, only a few hundred cases occur globally each year and eradication is within reach.
  • Preventing death by dehydration: HSPH’s Richard Cash and colleague David Nalin developed and promoted oral rehydration therapy — a low-cost, low-tech technique that has saved the lives of millions of children from dehydration caused by cholera and other diarrheal diseases.
  • Cleaner air: HSPH’s Six Cities Study provided the scientific evidence needed to improve U.S. air quality standards through the Clean Air Act, saving thousands of lives each year.
  • Fighting fat: HSPH’s Walter Willett and colleagues helped prove and publicize the dangers of trans fats, leading to bans, new food-labeling standards, and the removal of these fats from many restaurant dishes and packaged foods. HSPH researchers also helped show that not all fat is “bad fat,” revolutionizing nutritional advice from governments and health experts.
  • Safe blood supplies: HSPH’s Max Essex and colleagues determined that HIV could be transmitted via blood and blood products, a finding that made it possible to prevent the spread of AIDS through the blood supply through effective screening.
  • Designated Driver Campaign: Developed and promoted by HSPH in 1988, the campaign enlisted TV networks and Madison Avenue marketing firms in a broad-scale effort to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.

In addition to making discoveries and innovations like these that advance people’s health, HSPH faculty and graduates have become leaders at Harvard, in the U.S., and worldwide. A few examples:

  • Alice Hamilton, a renowned industrial toxicologist, became the first female faculty member at Harvard University when she joined the HMS/HSPH faculty in 1919 as assistant professor of industrial medicine.
  • Since 1962, five directors of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been HSPH graduates.
  • Two HSPH graduates have been heads of state in their home countries, and one has served as head of the World Health Organization.

Research, alumni, and students are global

Today, Harvard School of Public Health has total revenues of more than $344 million to support its research and educational mission, with $185 million (54 percent) of that coming as research revenue from the U.S. government. Approximately 1,000 graduate students attend the School each year.  Students in the Class of 2013 hailed from 74 different countries and 30 states within the U.S.  The School’s faculty conduct research in more than 80 countries worldwide and its alumni now live and work in 111 nations.  Harvard School of Public Health is led by Dean Julio Frenk, the former Minister of Health in Mexico. Frenk led efforts that resulted in 50 million previously uninsured Mexican citizens receiving universal health coverage.

Leadership for a new century

As Benjamin Franklin famously stated, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” At Harvard School of Public Health, prevention—of diseases, of environmental and societal shifts that threaten our health, of economic hardship due to health care costs—is the heart of our mission.

Today, HSPH continues to bring together experts from wide-ranging disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. Whether it’s safe surgery checklists that avert deaths and injuries from medical errors; creating new science-based healthy eating guidelines; improving the design of clinical trials for cancer and AIDS; identifying genetic variants that increase susceptibility to diseases; or helping to create the first state-level single-payer health system, the School continues to convert innovative ideas into real-world solutions—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices.

Highlights of the centennial celebration

To launch its year-long centennial celebration, on October 24-25, the School will host two days of activities that include kickoff of its planned multimillion-dollar capital fundraising campaign, presentation of Centennial Medals to a small group of distinguished honorees, and a Leadership Summit featuring a panel of global health leaders. (Learn more at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/gala/)

On November 1, the School will host a summit on public health education (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/second-century-symposium/) to coincide with the beginning of the national meeting of the American Public Health Association.

For reporters:

HSPH has a wide range of faculty available to talk about the future directions of global public health. To develop story ideas, please contact:

Todd Datz
Harvard School of Public Health


Harvard School of Public Health brings together dedicated experts from many disciplines to educate new generations of global health leaders and produce powerful ideas that improve the lives and health of people everywhere. As a community of leading scientists, educators, and students, we work together to take innovative ideas from the laboratory and the classroom to people’s lives—not only making scientific breakthroughs, but also working to change individual behaviors, public policies, and health care practices. Each year, more than 400 faculty members at HSPH teach 1,000-plus full-time students from around the world and train thousands more through online and executive education courses. Founded in 1913 as the Harvard-MIT School of Health Officers, the School is recognized as America’s first professional training program in public health.