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Swan Song

by Sylvia Eggleston Wehr

One spring day in 1985, a friend suggested I talk with the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health about an opportunity to work there. I said, "Public health? That sounds so boring. I wouldn't be interested in that." Still, I met with then-Dean D.A. Henderson, whom I had heard of as the man who led the successful WHO smallpox eradication campaign.

After about fifteen minutes of conversation with D.A., I realized how ill informed I was.

Public health is one of the most interesting, most vital and most rewarding fields in which one can work. Spending the better part of my professional career at the School is probably the best decision I have ever made. That is why I find it difficult to believe this is my last column as managing editor of Johns Hopkins Public Health. After 22 years, I will step down as Associate Dean for External Affairs at the School at the end of June. I have loved every minute of it. (Well, almost every minute!)

Under the leadership of D.A. Henderson, Al Sommer and now Mike Klag, the School has expanded dramatically, more than doubling our faculty, launching countless new programs in the U.S. and abroad, revolutionizing the School's campus and initiating new programs like the Malaria Research Institute; the Gates Institute ; the Department of Health, Behavior and Society; the Center for a Livable Future; the Center for Global Health and many others.

The School's faculty, alumni, students and staff genuinely believe they can change the world. And they do. Their dedication is amazing—establishing scientific studies in remote parts of the world, breaking through frontiers of science and discovering better ways to prevent illness and death. They do so many things that are incredibly difficult. Where others would turn away from the challenges, they do not. I have had the privilege of seeing firsthand their work and the obstacles they face. Near the base of the Himalayas on Nepal's terai, I witnessed children receiving a dose of vitamin A that would save many of their lives. In a South African orphanage, I saw the terrible ramifications of the AIDS epidemic. For most of the world's peoples, public health is not an abstract concept. It is urgently needed and all-too-rarely achieved. I'm proud of the School's leading role in this global struggle.

So you might ask, why move on? My late husband loved to say, "Always leave while they're begging you to stay." It seemed like good advice to me. My resolve was reinforced during a March visit to New York City. In a meeting with the Sommer Scholars, Mayor Michael Bloomberg mentioned the importance of accepting new challenges and allowing others to bring fresh insights to a position you may hold. That insight, and my experience at the School seeing how new leadership can bring new ideas and vitality, encouraged me in my decision to step down. (However, I still alternately applaud my good sense and question my wisdom.)

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is truly remarkable. I have been honored to work and live in this environment, and I look forward to watching the School continue to achieve great things for all the people of the world.