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Health and Humanity

Karen Kruse Thomas

A Q&A with Karen Kruse Thomas, PhD, author of "Health and Humanity: A History of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1935-1985"

Among the highlights of the School’s Centennial was the publication of Health and Humanity: A History of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1935-1985, by Karen Kruse Thomas, PhD, School historian.

Published in June 2016 by Johns Hopkins University Press, the book explores the development of public health at Johns Hopkins, set in the context of mid-twentieth century public health education, research and policy. It follows Elizabeth Fee’s book Disease and Discovery: A History of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, 1916-1939.

JHSPH writer Lindsay Smith Rogers recently spoke with Thomas about her book.

Why does your book begin in 1935 and end in 1985?

1935 is a milestone year for American public health because the Social Security Act passed that year. That Act, which we think of as being about retirement, had the first major federal funding for state and local health departments and training public health professionals. That really energized and dramatically expanded the School’s education programs, particularly its MPH. We now consider that our flagship degree program, but before 1935 it was a very minor part of [the School].

I decided to end in 1985 because that made a nice half-century. Also, I had more material than I could possibly write about!

What aspect of the School’s history stood out to you in writing the book?

The scope of the School’s work intersects with every major health agency, philanthropy, and NGO in the world. [The School was] there at the creation of the CDC, the WHO, USAID’s health division...There’s correspondence with just about every major figure in the history of 20th century public health.

Can you identify a pivotal year in the period covered by the book?

1948 was a really interesting transition year for the School because public health was at the height of its influence right after World War II. There’s widespread acknowledgement that public health efforts had really helped win the war, because for the first time in history there were fewer deaths from disease than from fighting. There’s a famous essay by a man named Vannevar Bush [“Science: The Endless Frontier”] about the success of the measures against malaria, syphilis and other diseases that were facing troops in the Pacific and European theaters. He asked for Congress’s support for what becomes the National Science Foundation. 1948 is when the modern NIH and the WHO are created. The CDC was created in 1946, so that is just getting off the ground.

If 1948 was a moment of optimism, what was a dispiriting period?

[In the 1950’s] the Red Scare and anti-Communism hit Baltimore and the School quite hard. Immediately after all this very idealistic, endless optimism there’s a sudden chill that comes into the air and the state and the city government start cracking down on suspected Communists. Some of our faculty were actually called before federal investigators.

You did more than 60 oral history interviews for the book. Is there one that you found especially compelling?

I think one of the most fascinating was a double interview with Henry Mosley [Professor Emeritus, Population, Family and Reproductive Health] and Al Sommer [JHSPH Dean Emeritus from 1990-2005] about their experience in the Epidemic Intelligence Service, and how they and a lot of other people deferred service in Vietnam by going into the EIS. They served in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, fighting cholera and smallpox and working closely with Alexander Langmuir and D.A. Henderson. The interview showed what a small world international health was and how many of the leaders of the School—one who became chair of population dynamics and one who became dean of the School—were mentored and shaped by that very specific coterie of EIS officers and the experiences and leadership that came out of that.

What else do you want to tell us about the book?

The role of women in public health. The School—and the University—was populated by white guys during the time I’m writing about. But it did start to change and I talk about the rise of women—they become a majority of graduates of the school in 1981 and they are well over the majority now—but [the School] did not promote and award tenure to women until very late in the game. The first woman to get tenure was Margaret Merrell in 1959, and the School was founded in 1916.

So the next book will feature lots of women?


Can you give a preview of the next installment in the School’s history?

The third volume [which is in the works] will go from 1986-2016 and encompass a fuller analysis of D.A. Henderson’s deanship, and also look at Al Sommer and Mike Klag’s deanships, all the way up to the Centennial.

Any dirt that you couldn’t put in the second book?

In the 1960s and 1970s, Epidemiology was apparently a hotbed of passion.

Karen Kruse Thomas’s first book, Deluxe Jim Crow: Civil Rights and American Health Policy, 1935-1954, looks at federal policy and racial disparity in health care.

Buy Health and Humanity: A History of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 1935-1985 before January 15, 2017 and get 40 percent OFF and free shipping by ordering from JHU Press and entering code HHOL at checkout.