From the Dean: 75 and Counting

From the Dean: 75 and Counting

Most public health professionals have their nose to the grindstone--collecting and analyzing data, identifying new issues and creating new approaches to those issues. Both metaphorically and literally, we spend a great deal of time with our head down, or with our eyes locked on the computer screen. Just think of that famous picture of the great SPH epidemiologist Tommy Francis, poring over the card catalog for the polio vaccine trials, making sure that each handwritten entry was correct.

It takes that kind of intensity to come up with good answers and better questions--I know from my personal experience peering down the ocular of a microscope for hours on end, looking for subtle changes in brain morphology and function.

But that's why I welcome the chance to look up every so often and take a longer view. This year, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of this school, the SPH community at large has the opportunity, for a brief moment, to step back from what we're doing and take stock of how far we've come.

And that's a good thing. As academics, we're unerringly moored to things like P-values, impact factors, and H-indices--and to promotion, tenure, and recruitment. It's easy to be so consumed with where we are in our careers that we lose sight of why we're doing what we do. It's easy to forget that the only real achievement in academic public health is the creation of new knowledge that improves the health of people around the globe.

So in addition to giving us an excuse to pull out streamers and balloons and celebrate our successes, the school's 75th anniversary helps reorient us to where we ought to be going. It reminds us that overnight successes are rare (if not non-existent), and that not everything we do works--but that the prospect of failure should never deter us from trying.

As a species, human beings rarely take time to reflect on endeavors that were not so successful. And that's a pity, because if we ignore our failures, we risk repeating the same mistakes at the expense of the health of our communities. We've recently learned, for example, that FluMist--the world's first nasal-spray influenza vaccine, developed here at SPH by the late John Maassab--is not as effective as previously thought. And while that news is disappointing, it's also motivating, for we can find new ways to do things better. The history of public health is full of research and ideas that didn't work--and those are every bit as instructive as all of the achievements we celebrate.

So this anniversary year, I encourage us not to shy away from hard truths or difficult history. Let's look back not just on the things that worked but on those that did not, and remember that with each new discovery comes an opportunity to find a better way.

Thomas Francis, Jr.I like to think of Tommy Francis scrutinizing those index cards crammed with data. He didn't know what the outcome of those clinical trials would be. He didn't know that one day soon he'd be standing in Rackham Auditorium telling the world that Salk vaccine worked. Instead, in his notebooks (now part of the extraordinary collection at U-M's Bentley Historical Library) he jotted this note to himself: "What if the stuff is no good?"

It is inspiring to remember that a great scientist like Francis was subject to the same doubts, wants, and fears that we experience today. It's inspiring to remember that the core of what drives us as scientists, educators, and practitioners has changed very little from the inception of this school in 1941--even though the means by which we execute our mission have changed vastly.

What truly unites all the greats who have wandered these halls--both faculty and alumni, students and staff--is not the technology. It's not our computational ability or our access to information. It's our ability to identify, frame, and articulate the right question. The fundamental legacy of all the people who have spent late nights and early mornings with their nose to the grindstone inside this school is their ability to think critically about the issues of the day--to ask the questions more cogently, to analyze the data more clearly, and to come up with a better intervention.

Our collective job is to leave the world a better place. So the questions for us on this 75th anniversary are: what are we doing today to make the world that much better? What new stories are we creating for the next 75 years?

Martin Philbert
Dean and Professor of Toxicology