A picture of Dean Will Dow

Dean’s Message 75 Years of Public Health at Berkeley

Seventy-five years ago, a group of determined visionaries came together to create a school of public health for California. At the time, there were no schools of public health west of the Mississippi. These pioneers faced many obstacles. Nevertheless, with persistence and partnership between academics, community members, industry, and government, they succeeded in bringing public health education to the western states. Although they had to do it in an unusual way, by passing a bill through the California legislature to establish and fund the school.

These characteristics of the School’s founders—vision, persistence, partnership, and innovation—have remained an integral part of our DNA from 1943 to 2018, even as the field of public health and the School’s approach to it have evolved over time. In fact, many of our pioneering faculty and alumni are responsible for shaping this evolution, in areas including advancing research into the social determinants of health, proving the value of community-engaged science, bringing climate change into environmental health science, and innovating with technology for the greater good.

As you read our 75th Anniversary stories, you might be struck, as I was, by just how many different approaches there are to public health research and practice. Our community spans STEM fields such as biology, chemistry, medicine, and statistics; social sciences like anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology; humanities such as ethics, history, and philosophy; and the core interdisciplinary public health fields of epidemiology, environmental health, health management, infectious disease, nutrition, and more.

Underneath the different approaches and expertise areas, you will see the commonalities that lead us all to Berkeley and to public health—our shared commitment to going further upstream to address the root causes of health and illness for maximum population health impact. Our belief that research should engage with communities and policymakers so it will make a difference in people’s lives, particularly the most vulnerable. Most of all, on every page, you will see our persistence. We have a vision of a better way to a healthier future and we flat-out refuse to let go of it, over months, years, and decades.

Luckily, our faculty and researchers are not alone in the long struggle to move the needle on complex public health problems. Because our primary mission is education, there is continuity to our work as we train students to follow and then surpass us. At the School, not only do we stand on the shoulders of giants, but we also rub elbows with current and future greatness, every day.

As interim dean during this milestone year, I am privileged to play a small part in guiding the School into the next 75 years and beyond. Our faculty has been very engaged in shaping our strategic vision and our research priorities as we continue to evolve to best train our students and meet the health needs of our communities in California and around the world. Together, we will hew to the School’s pioneering spirit in the following three areas. Each aligns with the campus-wide signature initiatives, with the School playing a crucial role in scaling up from cellular-discovery to delivering society-level impact on population health.

Striving for greater health equity: Inequality is the defining issues of our time. We have a distinguished legacy as the birthplace of social epidemiology and as leaders in community-based participatory research. Our community continues to make groundbreaking progress in addressing inequality and advancing health as a human right.

Responding to health threats brought by global change: The next 75 years will be profoundly shaped by global forces such as climate change; infectious disease pandemics; food system transformations; and population changes such as migration, urbanization, and aging. At Berkeley, we will lead the way in advancing our society’s understanding of these forces and learning how best to mitigate their adverse health effects.

Leveraging technology and innovation for better health: We are in the midst of a massive advances in data science and technological innovation, and data science and social science are intersecting as never before. We have an unprecedented opportunity to lead the way in areas like machine learning and genomics, as well as collaborate with engineers, computer scientists, and others to help ensure that these technological advances benefit the health of our most vulnerable communities and not just an elite few.

If the founders of our School were to see us today, they might not recognize us as the small public health school that primarily aimed to better train health officers to serve the health needs of Californians and the other western states. But I have no doubt they would be proud of what we have become and how we have carried on their legacy of determination, ingenuity, and collaboration, in service of better health for all.

William H. Dow
Interim Dean and Kaiser Permanente Endowed Chair in Health Policy and Management
UC Berkeley School of Public Health

You might also like:

Our Berkeley Family of Global Citizens
Moving Beyond Medicine and Into our Neighborhoods
To Think Like a Mosquito