Kenneth Olden, former head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), has been appointed to the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) as a Yerby Visiting Professor in Environmental Health. Olden is a nationally recognized figure in the field of environmental health, having led NIEHS from 1991 to 2005. During that period, he also headed the National Toxicology Program based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
Olden’s leadership of NIEHS broke new ground. He was the first African American to direct one of the 18 institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and he was an early voice in asserting that human health and chronic disease are the result of gene/environment interactions. He strove to broaden the research undertaken by the institute, working to include large-scale human studies that could shed light on the environmental and genetic factors in disease. He embraced the results of the mapping of the human genome as an avenue toward describing how environmental agents change biological functions.
Recognizing the importance of applying research to policy, Olden has worked tirelessly toward drawing national attention to the striking health disparities that exist in the United States among racial and ethnic groups and between genders. He is a powerful advocate for the role that community groups can play in collaborating with research institutions to identify and address environmental health problems in their communities.
A cell biologist and biochemist, Olden received his Ph.D. from Temple University in 1970. He is the former director of the Howard University Cancer Center and former professor and chair of the department of oncology at Howard University Medical School in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine, and, in 1991, was appointed by then President George H.W. Bush to the National Cancer Advisory Board.
In 2005, HSPH awarded Olden its highest honor with the Julius B. Richmond Award, named after the former U.S. surgeon general and Harvard emeritus professor who continues to be an invaluable presence in the HSPH community.