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September 13, 2006

School Presents "We Three Deans"



Two major trends—the rise of philanthropy and greater public recognition—are shaping the field of public health, Dean Michael J. Klag told a Bloomberg School audience during "We Three Deans," a September 5 panel discussion that included his two predecessors.

The session kicked off the School’s new Bloomberg Leadership Series, designed to foster leadership development across the entire student body. D.A. Henderson and Alfred Sommer (both deans emeriti) joined Klag on the stage of Sommer Hall to take the measure of public health’s past, present and future.

About philanthropy's becoming an increasing force in international health, Klag, MD, MPH, professor of Epidemiology, said, “Now that the federal administration’s agenda has, to a degree, turned away from the work of public health, there has been a shift in the center of gravity away from government agencies to private foundations. I hope this money from the private sector will continue to come in.”

As for the field’s newfound recognition, Klag said, “Articles about public health are everywhere. One on trachoma, for example, appeared on the front page of the New York Times recently. I used to have to explain to people that an epidemiologist is not a skin doctor, but no more.”

Last, Klag had some advice for the public health students in the audience. “Gather incontrovertible evidence,” he said. “It will give you the bedrock on which to build the accord  necessary for transforming knowledge into policy.” Further, he stressed that coming up with new knowledge is not enough: A researcher must manage that knowledge and evidence. “You generate evidence and then you take it and become an advocate for its implementation”—à la Al Sommer fighting to get vitamin A supplementation onto the world’s agenda.

D.A. Henderson, MD, MPH ’60, began his remarks by observing that the discipline of public health is quite new. Only 90 years ago, he pointed out, did the experts believe the field was even worthy of its own school (the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health became a reality in 1916). “And just 50 years ago, public health was vastly different than it is today,” Henderson said. “In the early 1950s, for instance, there were only two vaccines available—smallpox and DPT [diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus]—and, in the developing world, only smallpox.”

Henderson, professor emeritus of Health Policy and Management and currently a professor of Medicine and of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the University of Pittsburgh, said that public health is one of the most effective mechanisms for building bridges between countries. "Health is one of the least controversial fields and invites collaboration even between countries that are otherwise hostile,” he noted.

As for the U.S. health system, Henderson said "It is a system in name only, providing no coverage at all for tens of millions of its citizens." He believes that some form of national health care system is inevitable, and he predicted that “a seismic change is coming to U.S. health care and the schools of public health will have to play a major role in developing the leaders for this.”

Alfred Sommer, MD, MHS ’73, professor of Epidemiology, International Health and Ophthalmology, also spoke about the future. “No one knows the future because you haven’t made it happen yet. Jenner didn’t know the importance of vaccines until he met the milkmaids. You will determine the future of public health by becoming totally engaged with an important issue, living and breathing it, thinking unrelentingly about your findings—especially any surprises—and then following wherever things take you.”

Sommer swears by this idea of following one’s research and experience wherever they may lead. He illustrated this point by recounting his own journey to the deanship. “From the first,” he said, “I had no interest in being an administrator—in fact, I got the master of health science degree because, unlike the MPH program, the MHS didn’t demand that you take even one management course. And later, when the idea was first floated about my applying for the dean’s position, I absolutely refused to consider a leadership position—I rest my case. Thank you.”

Dr. Barbara DeBuono, director of the Pfizer Public Health Group, chaired the panel session. Directly following the session, guests attended a reception and were able to view the "Milestones in Public Health" exhibit sponsored by Pfizer and the Association of Schools of Public Health (ASPH). —Rod Graham

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Lowe or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or