Epidemiology at HSPH: Celebrating an ‘adventurous discipline’

2 min read

Epidemiologists at Harvard have a long legacy of groundbreaking findings, from a 19th-century study on the effectiveness of bloodletting as a treatment for pneumonia to recent work on the role various dietary factors play in chronic disease risk. Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) faculty, alumni, and students gathered to reflect on the past and future of epidemiology at Harvard during the Cutter Symposium, held on November 8, 2013, as part of the School’s Centennial celebration.

Alfredo Morabia, a historian and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, kicked off the event with a lively historical overview of HSPH’s Department of Epidemiology—which he called a “methodological beacon” in an “adventurous discipline.” Morabia charged the packed audience in HSPH’s Snyder Auditorium with doing a better job of recording its history. In researching his speech, Morabia was surprised to find scant documentation in the archives at Countway Library—even for the 31-year tenure of Chair Brian MacMahon, who led the department until 1989. However, Morabia’s interviews with more than 20 faculty members, former chairs, and others connected to the department yielded a wealth of information.

Morabia noted that the University’s first epidemiologist was James Jackson, a professor of clinical medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in the early 19th century and the first physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Employing epidemiologic methods that were rare at the time, according to Morabia, Jackson found evidence countering the common practice of bloodletting for the treatment of pneumonia.