1960's arial photo of Miami Interstate exchange.

Is That Public Health?

Discovering the unexpected corners of a far-reaching discipline.

By Brian W. Simpson • Photo by Kubkoo/iStock

A favorite story from Sue Baker, the amazing injury-prevention pioneer:


In 1968, I became the first faculty member at the School of Public Health to specialize in accident prevention, soon to be known as injury control… . [My] research focused on highway safety and alcohol, which was associated with the majority of the 55,000 road deaths annually in those years. Yet when I described my research to a faculty member who asked what I was working on, she said, But is that Public Health? (From: Fifty Favorites of the Works of Susan P. Baker, 2012)

I’m not sure what Sue’s response was at the time, but it should have been something like, “Damn straight!” 

Any research that could reduce 55,000 annual deaths would have to qualify as public health. (Thanks to Sue and many others who took on this massive public health challenge, that number has been reduced by close to one-third while miles driven have almost tripled.) 

That story always captured my imagination because it demonstrates public health’s ever-expanding range of issues. Take a look at this magazine issue: hearing loss, e-cigarettes, the gut microbiome, in silico drug testing, food systems, and using microenterprise to prevent HIV infection. (And don’t forget Bandit, the video game dolphin who’s helping seniors improve their cognitive and physical skills.) 

This is not John Snow’s public health, but it is the 21st century version. 

The world of public health—with all of its fascinating corners—is our world. We all benefit from the dogged research and evidence amassed by the Bloomberg School’s faculty, students and alumni. No doubt the topics of that research will continue to expand to examine as-yet unanticipated issues in our world.

In the future when someone asks, “Is that public health?” you know how to answer.