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Center for a Livable Future


October 7, 2014

The Spirit of Inquiry: Honoring Bob Lawrence

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Speakers Lance Price, Al Sommer, and Polly Walker shared a moment.


“I tip my hat to Bob Lawrence for being such an inspiration,” said Lance Price, a former CLF-Lerner Fellow and microbiologist who investigates the connections between antibiotic resistance and agriculture.

Monday, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health held a special symposium honoring Robert S. Lawrence, MD, who is stepping down as the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), after 18 years in that role.  The 3-hour scientific symposium explored topics ranging from apartheid medicine to human rights health care to antibiotic resistance. He helped to found the Center in 1996, envisioning an academic center that would use the best science available to illuminate the connections among agriculture, diet, environment, and public health. His vision for the Center was to extend its reach beyond a role as a think tank, and with that aim in mind he steered the CLF toward deep engagement and outreach with various communities, from policymakers at all levels, to urban and rural farmers, to low-income food shoppers receiving SNAP benefits.

Dr. Lawrence’s long career has spanned service as a physician, as an officer with the Epidemic Intelligence Service at CDC, as an associate dean at the Bloomberg School, and as a co-founder of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), which shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to eliminate the use of antipersonnel landmines.

The scientific symposium, titled “Beyond Tilting at Windmills: One Physician’s Remarkable Journey in Public Health,” comprised two scientific sessions, the first focusing on the emergence of human rights as a framework for public health, and the second focusing on the benefits of a public health perspective in changing our food system. Presenters for those sessions included Jack Geiger (CUNY Medical School), Jennifer Leaning (Harvard University), Leonard Rubenstein (Bloomberg School), Kellogg Schwab (Bloomberg School), Lance Price (George Washington University), and Frederick Kirschenmann (Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture).

“Bob Lawrence is a Renaissance man of the human rights movement,” said Jack Geiger, who, like Dr. Lawrence, is a co-founder of PHR.

Mr. Rubenstein spoke about Dr. Lawrence’s work in the human rights arena and recounted his first involvement in 1983 when he went to El Salvador to investigate the disappearances of 16 health care workers. “Bob Lawrence started the incredibly important tradition of reporting on human rights attacks on health care workers,” he said. Dr. Lawrence is credited with pioneering the systematic investigation of violence against health workers.

Wayne Roberts, a colleague of Dr. Lawrence and author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building, wrote in an online tribute: “I think the greatest tribute to him is that the Center will continue to make progress after his alleged retirement, because he built for successors as well as for success during his tenure.”

 “Bob has been a leader and a visionary in helping us understand the implications of wanting our food fast, cheap, and convenient,” said Mr. Kirschenmann.

“What I learned from Bob,” said Dr. Price, “is to communicate clearly and simply, especially when translating scientific research for policymakers.”

The symposium closed with an hour of reflection on Dr. Lawrence’s career and contributions to public health. Speakers included Alfred Sommer (Dean Emeritus, Bloomberg School), Grace Chan (Harvard School of Public Health), James Yager (Bloomberg School), Polly Walker (co-founder of CLF), and his five children.

“Bob Lawrence was the best model a young student in public health could ever hope for,” said Ms. Chan. “The waves and waves of students who come back year after year are a testament to Bob,” said Ms. Walker.

His children spoke about growing up in the Lawrence household and the spirit of inquiry that their father and mother, Cynthia Lawrence, instilled in them. “Once when we were young, we wondered out loud what it would be like to be at the dinner table with a Nobel laureate,” said one of his sons. Eventually they found out.


—Christine Grillo