Remembering Jack Elinson, Pioneer in Sociomedical Sciences

Elinson, who passed away at age 99 on February 13, 2017, founded the Mailman School’s Department of Sociomedical Sciences

February 15, 2017

A trailblazer in the field, Dr. Jack Elinson founded the world’s first sociomedical science department in a public health school at Columbia University. After his more than half a century of service as a Mailman School professor, department chair, and mentor, Dr. Elinson is remembered as a leader in the development of public health as a sociomedical science and acclaimed for building a new understanding of health. 

“Our field, and our department, would not be here today without the pioneering work of Dr. Jack Elinson,” said Lisa Metsch, Stephen Smith Professor and Chair of Sociomedical Sciences. “As we mourn his passing, we strive to honor Dr. Elinson’s memory and legacy by continuing to position public health challenges in a social, political, and economic context.” 

In 1917, Dr. Elinson was born in the Bronx to Russian immigrant parents, Rebecca and Zusha. He attended Boys’ High in Brooklyn, graduated from City College of New York with a degree in chemistry and psychology in 1937, and received his Master’s degree in 1946 and his PhD in Social Psychology in 1954 from the George Washington University. 

During World War II, he served as a social science analyst in the U.S. War Department, researching morale and attitudes of GIs. Working with the nation’s leading sociologists, this work was published in the groundbreaking volume The American Soldier. After leaving the War Department and moving with his wife, May, and their four children to Chicago, Elinson worked with Dr. Ray Trussell at the National Opinion Research Center on a landmark study, Chronic Illness in a Rural Area, which demonstrated much higher rates of chronic disease among a rural population in New Jersey than were reported in personal interviews. The study was the first to include both on-site clinical examinations along with questionnaires in a probability study of the general population to collect valuable health data. 

When Dr. Trussell became Dean of the Columbia School of Public Health in 1956, he recruited Dr. Elinson to join him. As a new faculty member, Elinson discovered there were no roles for social scientists in the field and no social scientists on the faculty. Following several years of advocating for social science resources on the medical campus, he founded the Department of Sociomedical Sciences in 1968, heading the department from 1968-1978 and 1982-1985. 

Elinson's research focused on assessing and addressing unmet health care needs and evaluating the effectiveness of health services. He carried out surveys in Washington Heights and Puerto Rico, mental health surveys, studies of multiphasic automated testing for health, and teenage drug use surveys. Dr. Elinson created a method now widely used in assessing quality of life, known as the Five Ds: death, disease, disability, discomfort and dissatisfaction. From 1966-1971, he directed the Harlem Hospital Center Patient Care and Program Evaluation Department. 2 

Deeply committed to improving health care delivery in developing countries, Elinson helped establish the School of Public Health at the University of Puerto Rico, and consulted with the Pan-American Health Organization, designing and analyzing public health programs in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Cuba. 

Dr. Elinson authored, co-authored, and edited numerous books and wrote approximately one hundred articles, book chapters, and government reports. His papers are preserved in the Archives and Special Collections of the Columbia University Health Sciences Library. He is also the subject of an award-winning documentary, “Jack Elinson: Pioneer in the Sociomedical Sciences.” 

Dr. Elinson attended the first meeting of the American Association of Public Opinion Research in 1946, serving as its president in 1979-80. He was a fellow of the American Sociological Association, and received its Leo Reeder Award for Distinguished Contributions to Medical Sociology in 1985. A member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, he served on the board of the Medical and Health Research Association of New York City and the Bergen County New Jersey Tuberculosis and Health Association. He was honored with a National Merit Award from the Delta Omega Society and a Festschrift of Social Science and Medicine in 1989. Through the Elinson Award Fund, Columbia University grants the Jack Elinson Award to a graduate student who authored the best published sociomedical sciences paper. 

Today, all major schools of public health in the United States teach sociomedical sciences. Dr. Elinson’s legacy grows: his former students have continued his work on the impact of race and poverty on health at universities and health agencies around the world, and the department he founded will go on to educate leaders in the field for generations to come. 

Memorial donations can be made to the Elinson Award Fund at the Mailman School of Public Health, 722 West 168th Street, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10032.