James Whittenberger, who chaired the Department of Physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) from 1948 to 1980, passed away March 17. He was 93 years old. Whittenberger established what would become the Harvard NIEHS Center for Environmental Health at the School in 1958, 12 years before the federal Environmental Protection Agency was established. From 1969 to 1970, he was a member of the President’s Task Force on Air Pollution.
Whittenberger earned an S.B. and then an M.D. in 1938 from the University of Chicago. There, he worked as a fellow in surgery under Charles B. Huggins, who later earned a Nobel Prize in medicine. During World War II and immediately afterward, Whittenberger served with the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
Whittenberger came to HSPH in 1946 and worked with Cecil Drinker, former dean of the School, and Philip Drinker, co-developer of the iron lung. In 1951, Whittenberger became a professor of physiology and seven years later was named James Stevens Simmons Professor of Public Health. He served as associate dean for academic affairs from 1966 to 1972 and then as associate dean of the Faculty of Public Health until 1978.
In his early career, Whittenberger studied respiratory mechanics and the use of artificial ventilation in polio patients. Later, he examined pollution’s effects on the physiology of respiratory systems. To accomplish this research, Whittenberger incorporated toxicology and epidemiology into the Department of Physiology.
Whittenberger founded and directed the Kresge Center for Environmental Health at HSPH, now called the Harvard National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Center for Environmental Health. Whittenberger worked to expand the center’s scope to encompass other fields that contribute to the scientific base of environmental health. Now in its 43rd year, the center includes researchers in the fields of biostatistics, genetics and complex diseases, nutrition, epidemiology, radiation sciences, and toxicology.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, Whittenberger served on a multitude of committees and panels for agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, NIEHS, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Research Council, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Center for Health Statistics, the President’s Biomedical Research Panel, and the Ford Foundation.
He served on the President’s Science Advisory Committee as a member of the Environmental Pollution Panel (1964 to 1965) and as a member of the Panel on Chemicals and Health (1970 to 1972).
In the 1970s, he co-chaired the first and second task forces for research planning in environmental health sciences for NIEHS. This work led to the publication of the influential reports “Man’s Health and the Environment: Some Research Needs” and “Human Health and the Environment: Some Research Needs,” intended to guide national planning efforts in environmental health research.
After retiring from HSPH in 1980, Whittenberger became the director of the Southern Occupational Health Center, University of California, Irvine. He also was professor in residence in the Department of Community and Environmental Medicine, College of Medicine, Irvine, and in the Division of Environmental Sciences, School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles.
A memorial service is being planned. More information will be provided as details become available.