Columbia Mailman History Preserved on Video Tape

January 27, 2022

In 1999, Marita Murrman, then a brand-new faculty member in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, was approached by a master’s student interested in applying for a grant from the Association of Public Health Schools. The grant would memorialize a luminary in public health. Their subject was obvious: Jack Elinson, whose innovations transformed the field of public health—notably, by creating the subspecialty of sociomedical sciences.

After winning the grant, Murrman, today a professor of sociomedical sciences, and Brian Castrucci, now the president and chief executive officer of the de Beaumont Foundation, worked closely with a creative team at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital to produce the video. Digitized from a Betamax tape for the Columbia Mailman Centennial Celebrations, the result presents a rounded portrait of Elinson’s decades-long scholarly contributions. (Watch the video below.)

Born in 1917 in the Bronx to Russian immigrant parents, Elinson graduated from City College of New York in 1937 and received his Master’s degree in 1946 and his PhD in 1954 

from George Washington University. During the Second World War, he served as a social science analyst in the U.S. War Department, researching the morale and attitudes of GIs. In 1951, he joined the University of Chicago, where he collaborated with Ray Trussell on a groundbreaking study of chronic illness, the first to include clinical exams along with questionnaires in a probability study of the general population—laying the groundwork for NHANES (the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey).

When Trussell became Dean of the Columbia School of Public Health in 1956, he recruited Elinson to join him. Following several years of advocating for social science resources on the medical campus, in 1968, Elinson founded the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, heading the department until 1978 and again from 1982 to 1985. Sociomedical sciences draws on the expertise of anthropologists, economists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists. The department was the first of its kind anywhere, formalizing a subspecialty that has since flourished around the world.

In the video, Elinson explains the social determinants of health that are so central to sociomedical sciences, highlighting the roles played by “socioeconomic status, the neighborhoods you live in, the kind of family relations you have, the social networks in which you exist.” Advertising too, plays a role in shaping health and ill-health, he adds.  

According to David Rosner, a historian and professor of sociomedical sciences, Elinson was a key figure in the evolution of public health from a field concerned with sanitary science and bacteriological science to one that also accounts for the social environment. This enlarged view of public health can be seen in the context of the social tumult of the Depression and the Second World War. In the video, Elinson and Rosner can be seen walking on the campus of City College, which they both attended as undergraduates—separated by 30 years but both during periods of heightened social consciousness. “From the first, [Elinson] was refuting the simplistic or reductionist idea of what disease is,” Rosner says in the video.

Throughout his career, Elinson’s research focused on assessing and addressing unmet health care needs and evaluating the effectiveness of health services. From 1966 to 1971, he directed the Harlem Hospital Center Patient Care and Program Evaluation Department. In the video, Ann Brunswick, a research scientist in sociomedical sciences, says Elinson developed the methodology used in a pioneering health survey of adults in Harlem, which was later employed in a longitudinal study of Harlem adolescents, which shed light on the health status of Black teens there over three decades.

Elinson also made major contributions to quality-of-life research and helped establish the School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico. He consulted with the Pan-American Health Organization, designing and analyzing public health programs in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Cuba. Before retiring from the full-time faculty in 1986, Elinson authored and edited numerous books and wrote approximately one hundred articles, book chapters, and government reports. He died in 2017.

In the video, Allan Rosenfield, Columbia Mailman dean from 1986 to 2008, praises Elinson as a “wonderful mentor to so many people.” Sociomedical sciences professor Donald Gemson, who co-taught a course in preventive public health with Elinson, calls him an exemplary professor—“someone who can make students think.” In another scene, Elinson is seen speaking with James Colgrove, then a student, today a professor of sociomedical sciences and Dean of the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program at the Columbia School of General Studies. Other interviewees include Eugene Litwak, head of Sociomedical Sciences from 1985 to 1996, and Mary Northridge, who was then a professor in the department. 

Marita Murrman, who took over teaching health promotion courses from Elinson, said she is gratified to watch the video all these years later: “I’m proud of it. We did what we set out to do in capturing Jack Elinson’s position as a public health luminary. These days our field is buzzing with interest in the social determinants of health—and quite rightly. Jack was one of the first to articulate their importance. He changed everything.”

After working on the video and going on to earn his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brian Castrucci, was twice honored with awards named for Elinson. Castrucci recalls: “When I was a student, Jack Elinson so clearly understood and easily articulated that health was not simply about biological or physiological functions. That we need to understand how societal externalities impact a person’s health and that policy and interventions should be community-focused rather than individually focused. We continue to struggle with this today.”


Watch the video: