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Mann's Hope

By Sylvia Eggleston Wehr

“At its essence public health remains the story of people.”

In his article about the next generation of researchers at the School, writer Michael Purdy states a simple truth that could serve as a narrative theme for this issue. The story of public health is the story of people gaining knowledge, making scientific discoveries, and using those insights to benefit others. Think of Edward Jenner’s observation that milkmaids seemed to be protected from smallpox. That led him to develop a vaccine against smallpox, which later made it possible for the School’s D.A. Henderson to lead an international smallpox eradication campaign—the only successful eradication effort of its kind in history. 

Or consider the case of one-time Kansas farm boy and legendary nutrition researcher at the School, E.V. McCollum. He worked painstakingly in his laboratories to discover vitamins A and D and thus provide the public health interventions that led to the elimination of diseases like rickets, nutritional blindness, and scurvy. Decades later, Al Sommer picked up the thread of McCollum’s discoveries and made one of his own. He found that small doses of vitamin A (costing just 4 cents each) given to children in the developing world could prevent blindness and the deaths of millions.

Such uncommon stories are common at the School, where our rich research history and cutting-edge science often intertwine. As the first chair of the first academic department of medical statistical science in the world, Raymond Pearl pioneered the application of statistical methods to problems in biology and health. He would well appreciate today’s innovators like Francesca Dominici, an Italian biostatistician at the School who is working with literally billions of bits of data from such diverse sources as Medicare rolls, Environmental Protection Agency studies, weather records, and census statistics. Her mission: to determine air pollution’s effects on health.

Throughout this issue of Johns Hopkins Public Health, you will read of the School’s new generation of scientists and leaders who are grappling with health challenges as diverse as SARS, malaria, unsafe drinking water, and the cost of health care. In the field, our alumni make a difference in global health every day. Just read about Peter Beilenson, the dedicated health commissioner for Baltimore. Or follow Nigerian ophthalmologist Benedictus Ajayi’s efforts to improve vision and prevent blindness in West Africa. Or learn about Vallop Thaineua, permanent secretary to Thailand’s Ministry of Public Health, and his efforts to improve the physical fitness of his countrymen.

Whether they know it or not, the School’s faculty, alumni, and students wake up every day with a commitment to fulfill Horace Mann's compelling dictum: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

We should all do the same.