Now, more than ever, says SPH alumnus Bailus Walker, public health practice, teaching, and research need each other.
Since receiving his MPH from SPH in 1959, Bailus Walker has enjoyed a robust career as both an academician and a public health practitioner. His crowded resume includes stints as president of the American Public Health Association; director of the Occupational Standards Division, Occupational Safety and Health Administration; commissioner of public health for the State of Massachusetts; and state director of public health for Michigan—as well as faculty appointments at Howard University, SUNY-Albany, and the University of Oklahoma. He's a past recipient of the SPH Distinguished Alumni Award (2006) and the SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences Award (2012) for "achievements that exemplify the highest ideals and aspirations" of graduates of the department. On the occasion of the school's 75th anniversary, we asked Walker to tell us how Michigan inspired him.
"The late SPH Professor William Gibson was my model. Every Tuesday morning we had a class, and Bill Gibson would not lecture—instead, we would sit around the table, and we would talk about issues, and about how the practice world, as opposed to the academic world, functioned. Gibson was able to bring to us real-life experiences which suggested that when we got out there in the practice world, we were going to have to deal with political issues, and with groups who want you to accomplish or do things that you may not be able to do within the law. So you've got to pay attention to that.
"I'm wondering if that kind of interaction isn't probably more needed now than it was back then, because the issues we're dealing with in public health are more complex than they were years ago. We've seen a gradual movement from the biomedical model to the population model, where we look more at the social and behavioral determinants of disease and dysfunction and how, for example, they link up to create risk for a poverty-laden family. We are dealing now, to some extent, with a population that is not going to just take what we say as the Bible but will go digging through the whys and wherefores, and will explain the limitations of what we can and cannot do. And as the people addressing the Flint water situation recognize, we are dealing with activists who demand results.
"So the whole landscape of public health has changed, and I'm wondering if that has not created an almost daily demand for interactions between folks who are doing the teaching and research and those of us who are out there translating theory into practice. More and more, I think we need to link up with academics and have them help us move through these raucous practice environments that we are dealing with today."