Remembering Bernard Challenor

February 11, 2022

Each year at Commencement, a member of the Columbia Mailman graduating class is awarded the Bernard Challenor Spirit Prize, one of the School’s top honors, given in recognition of those who exemplify the character of the award’s namesake. But who was Bernard Challenor? He was a pioneering African-American public health scientist, beloved colleague and teacher, and leader who helped make Columbia Mailman what it is today. He was also at the center of one of history’s singular public health achievements: the eradication of smallpox.

Bernard Challenor began his career as a medical epidemiologist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Honduras, Panama, and Togo. He was a member of the West Africa Smallpox Eradication Program in Togo, Ghana, and Benin. There he encountered resistance to vaccination

among millions of people who understood smallpox to be a form of divine punishment treated using traditional methods. In a 1968 WHO report, Challenor wrote that the vaccination effort succeeded in this environment with the help of tribal chiefs who came to see traditional methods as ineffective. Less than a decade later, smallpox, was wiped off the face of the Earth. In 1977, Challenor, then a Columbia professor, testified at a Congressional hearing, reflecting, “A crippling and sometimes fatal disease has been removed. But that is one individual disease. You still have the infrastructure of disease, producing death and disability.”

Bernard Desmond Challenor was born July 24, 1936, in Manhattan. He received a bachelor's degree from Hunter College; an MD from the State University of New York, Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn; and an MPH from Harvard University. Beginning in 1963, he served as a Peace Corps Physician in Bangladesh, Nepal, and Malawi. Two years later, he became the first African-American appointed to be a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer. According to one of his classmates, the future Columbia Mailman professor couldn’t find housing near the CDC—due to widespread housing discrimination.

In 1969, following his work in Ghana and a short stint with the Boston Department of Health and Hospitals, Challenor came to Columbia. He was named deputy director of the Harlem Hospital Center Affiliation Program and assistant professor of public health. A member of the faculty for more than three decades, he served at various points as acting head of Epidemiology, and Associate Dean for Hospital Affairs at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and most notably, as Acting Dean of the School of Public Health. He also led a degree program with the School of International and Public Affairs and directed the General Public Health Program in Health Policy and Management. His expertise spanned many areas: comparative health systems of Great Britain, Canada, China, and Cuba; health and the developing world, famine, debt crisis, poverty; health care of marginalized groups and health and poverty in the U.S. As chairman of the Physicians Forum in the early 1970s, he advocated for a national health insurance system.

In 1978, Challenor was appointed interim dean at Columbia Public Health when Dean John H. Bryant left to direct the Office of International Health under President Jimmy Carter.

Challenor was the first person of color to lead the School; at the time, there were few African-American faculty at leading schools of public health—let alone in leadership positions. As interim dean, he successfully led the reaccreditation of the School, as well as its joint MPH/MBA program. He also attracted new grant funding and increased student enrollment. After Robert Weiss was appointed dean in 1980, Challenor worked with him to establish Columbia Public Health’s independence from the Medical School. “He was a rock-solid presence in the growth of the [Mailman] School,” says Jeanne Stellman, emeritus professor of Health Policy and Management.

Known by many at the School as “Dr. C,” Challenor is remembered for his personal warmth, quiet dignity, and indomitable work ethic. Sherry Glied, dean of Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service and former chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management, recalls he was always the first to arrive in the morning: “He once surprised me at 4 a.m. while I pulled an all-nighter on a grant. He spent his early mornings reading magazines and journals in preparation for his classes. Of course, I can’t say for sure, because most of the rest of the faculty, including me, staggered in nearer to 10 than 4.”

Dhalia Rivera, a staff member who Challenor hired in 1971 to serve as a field interviewer for a study of health maintenance organizations, says, “He worked tirelessly to promote health education in the Black and Brown communities, as well as in Africa. He was an extraordinary humanitarian who cared immensely about public health in underserved countries.”

An extraordinary teacher and mentor, Challenor was beloved by generations of students who consistently remarked on his captivating lectures, deeming his courses the best they had taken. Professor Stellman remembers how students would line up during his office hours to get a chance to speak to him. “He was a rock star,” she says. While his appointment was in the Department of Health Policy and Management, Challenor taught in each of the School’s departments—and is believed to be the only professor in the School’s history to do so. After his sudden death of a heart attack in 2000, Ngina Lythcott, former Columbia Mailman Associate Dean and Dean of Students championed the establishment of the Bernard Challenor Spirt Award to honor his dedication to inter-departmental collegiality and collaboration.

Ngina Lythcott, a member of the Columbia faculty from 1998 to 2007, first met “Uncle Bernie,” as she called him, in West Africa when he worked under her father, George Lythcott, on smallpox eradication. When senior Lythcott returned from Africa, he was appointed associate dean for urban and community affairs at Columbia P&S—the same year Challenor joined Columbia. The younger Lythcott notes that the late 1960s was the dawn of an era when Black people were appointed to the faculty in schools of public health and medicine. She recalls: “I remember Uncle Bernie with great warmth and fondness. While I think of him as a giant in his academic disciplines, I also knew him as a gentle, kind, and generous man, who also loved Africa. He was a warm human being who took his life’s work seriously.”