A Century of Impact - Celebrating 100 Years of Public Health Leadership

For 100 years, the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health has set the pace for public health education and led by example in the quest for better health for everyone, everywhere.

December 1, 2021

Today, the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health is a global leader in education and practice, with over $250 million in sponsored research and projects in more than 100 countries. So it might be hard to envision our humble beginnings on West 59th Street a hundred years ago. An institution that began in a single room, with a single student, now has more than 16,000 alumni with state-of-the-art training working worldwide to build a healthier and more just society. Ranked fourth nationally among schools of public health by U.S. News and World Report, the School has 378 multidisciplinary faculty members addressing prevention of infectious and chronic diseases, pandemics, environmental threats to health, food and food systems, reproductive health, maternal and child health, climate change and health, public health policy, and crisis preparedness, among other issues. Underpinning it all: a commitment to resolving health disparities around the globe and across the full life course. More than 1,300 graduate students from 55 nations are pursuing master’s and doctoral degrees, and the School is home to world-renowned academic departments and research centers, including ICAP, the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII), and the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center.

To see how far the School has come, it helps to look back to the early years: the 19th century, when industrialization forced formerly agricultural workers into new depths of squalor and the emerging disciplines of sanitary science and bacteriology began to enable revolutionary reforms. Just before the 1866 cholera epidemic, New York City’s Metropolitan Board of Health became America’s first public health agency. While early public health achievements primarily involved protecting water supplies, ensuring safe disposal of sewage, and regulating foodstuffs, rapid advances in bacteriology quickly opened up new opportunities. In 1886, Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons began offering courses in handling bacteria; not long afterward, New York City established the nation’s first diagnostic public health laboratory in an effort to combat diphtheria, known as “a plague among children.” The groundwork for a public health curriculum at Columbia was laid in 1903, when a university committee proposed a Department of Hygiene, Sanitary Science, and Preventive Medicine; while the plan wasn’t adopted, a popular lecture series was born, attracting hundreds twice a week.

In 1914, the Rockefeller Foundation, which was exploring how to address the nation’s increasing need for trained public health workers, invited several research universities to the table. Columbia arrived with a remarkably multidisciplinary pitch that integrated medicine, engineering, and social sciences. This proposal was not funded, but it gained new life when Columbia received a major gift from the estate of mining magnate Joseph DeLamar in 1918 amid the spread of a deadly “Spanish flu.” At last, in 1922, Haven Emerson, MS/MD (1899 P&S)—a former New York City health commissioner who later served as chief epidemiologist for U.S. forces in the First World War—was appointed head of a new Institute of Public Health under the College of Physicians and Surgeons. The Institute was situated in one room with, as Emerson would later recall, “the smells from the cadaver room coming up through the floors.” Columbia had created one of the three original schools of public health in the United States. It formally became a school in 1945 and in 1998 became the Mailman School of Public Health as a result of a visionary endowment in honor of Joseph L. Mailman.

The School has embraced the mission laid out by the Rockefeller Foundation over its first 100 years, creating the science to understand how to prevent disease, disability, and injury and to improve health for all, and working in partnership with policy and practice sectors to bring that knowledge to benefit the population and educate future leaders. In the century since its founding, through three locations and five names, the School’s devotion to creating the conditions in which all can be healthy has endured. Our hallmark strengths—world-leading science, a singular curriculum, our distinctive Washington Heights home, and our inexhaustible commitment to our city and to building a healthy and just world—have equipped today’s public health leaders and are nurturing the trailblazers of tomorrow.

Defining Public Health

The School’s growth would not have been possible without a series of forward-thinking leaders (to date, 11 Institute heads—later called deans) peering beyond the horizon and constantly pushing to advance public health science and education. Early on, the School pioneered the formal study of population health using methods from the social sciences. Its researchers were the first to employ on-site health examinations and sampling techniques as part of a population health study. In the late 1920s, Adelaide Ross Smith, MD, the School’s first female professor, studied occupational health issues, including exposure to lead, chromium, and benzene. As early as 1946, the School launched a degree in biostatistics. The School is now a leader in the field of data science for health.

The School’s faculty has also led innovation in reproductive health and maternal and child health. Dean Allan Rosenfield, MD ’59, developed innovative programs to create healthy and safe motherhood at global scale, including family planning clinics; closer to home, he established a continuum model for childhood and adolescent health that incorporated school-based clinics for New York City middle and high schools, and clinics for underserved young men and women.

In 1952, Norman Jolliffe, MD, an associate professor at the School, founded one of the first public health clinics to study the causes of obesity and methods of prevention. Two decades later, the School evaluated the first methadone maintenance program and launched the first survey of teenagers’ health problems. Professors Mervyn Susser, MB, BCh, DPH, and Ernest Gruenberg, MD, DrPH, FAPA, established the world’s first Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program in 1967 with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health. In 2011, the School became home to the first academic program in climate and health in a public health school, which is looking more prescient with each passing season. A parade of firsts continued when, in 2019, the School launched its Program in Food Systems and Public Health focused on the intersection of public health and food access, policy, and advocacy.

Pursuing Health for All

Students and faculty at Columbia Mailman School today describe a strong sense of collaboration and solidarity with others who embody the School’s credo, “Building a Healthy and Just World.” The School’s expertise and global networks have led to major progress on entrenched long-term health inequities. In New York City, research in collaboration with low-income, marginalized communities provided the basis for policies that promote health and equity, including low-emissions buses and speed cameras. The School’s Harlem Health Promotion Center as well as clinics it helped launch in Northern Manhattan and the Bronx have brought health services to individuals living with or at risk for HIV and to marginalized young men and women of color. 

Throughout the School’s history, its researchers have studied and championed the health needs of at-risk populations. In 1985, Allan Rosenfield and colleague Deborah Maine, MPH, DrPH, published a landmark paper titled “Maternal Mortality—A Neglected Tragedy. Where Is the M in MCH?” 

The paper called on global health professionals and policymakers to address the mothers often forgotten in the maternal-infant health equation. Then they built the program to accomplish this globally, led by Lynn Freedman, JD, MPH ’90: AMDD (Averting Maternal Death and Disability). Children were not overlooked, however. Founded in 1998, the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health works with community partners in New York City and internationally. Across departments and decades and time zones, faculty have worked to provide cleaner air and water, and environments free of chemical pollutants.   

Fostering Scientific Discoveries

Research and scientifically developed evidence is the foundation for population health, and the Columbia Mailman School has, since its founding, pursued an agenda of innovative research to address critical and complex public health issues. In 1970, professor of Tropical Medicine John Frame, MD, was the first person to identify and characterize Lassa fever, a virus endemic to West Africa. In 2010, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, MS ’88, PhD, and Salim Abdool Karim, MS ’88, MD, PhD, both professors at Columbia Mailman School, published the CAPRISA 004 tenofovir gel trial, which provided proof of concept for the use of antiretroviral microbicides in the prevention of HIV and herpes simplex virus type 2 in women. Scientists at CII, led by renowned virus hunter W. Ian Lipkin, MD, developed methods to identify infectious disease threats, which have led to the discovery of more than 1,500 novel microbes and diagnostics for them. They orchestrated the response to SARS in 2003 and identified bats as the animal reservoir for the MERS coronavirus in 2013.

In times of crisis, Columbia Mailman School has proven its ability to pivot and find solutions: Its work on infectious disease identification and modeling was key to helping the world understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Around the world, ICAP, which created the world’s first multicountry HIV program, has tested 42.8 million people for HIV and supported programs delivering HIV treatment to 2.7 million people. Founded and led by Wafaa El-Sadr, MD, MPH ’91, MPA, it quickly broadened beyond its initial roots in HIV work to fight tuberculosis and malaria, improve maternal and child health, and strengthen health systems in more than 30 countries.

Distinguished epidemiologist and geriatrician Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, an expert in aging and health in our longer lives, became the School’s current dean in 2008 and is the first woman to lead the institution. During her tenure thus far, the School has launched a curriculum that has become a model for schools across the country, and established a range of new programs. These include the Climate and Health Program and its Global Consortium for Climate Health Education; the Program in Food, Food Systems and Health; the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion; the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center; and the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention, among others. As the Columbia Mailman School moves into its second century, we’re more ready than ever to promote and protect public health. And bigger, better triumphs are within our reach. Join us in commemorating our past, and in working together to create an even healthier future.

Jesse Adams has chronicled Columbia University past and present from the schools of journalism, law, and engineering. He previously wrote for Bill Moyers on PBS.