From the Archives: Sinai & SS

From the Archives: Sinai & SS

Colleagues would remember him as a “tireless scholar and researcher,” an “imaginative academician,” a “world health statesman,” and a “one-man school of public health,” who as a doctoral student at Michigan in the 1920s taught statistics, sanitation, public health administration, and Hygiene 101—a course so popular it attracted football players.

But it was his work on health insurance, an issue he began researching in 1928, that made Nathan Sinai famous. “When the history of the movement for national health insurance in this country is written,” UCLA School of Public Health Professor Emeritus Lester Breslow has said, “Sinai’s work will be among the most significant.”

Today, as politicians and policymakers again grope their way toward a solution to America’s health-coverage crisis, Sinai’s work remains foundational. His 1933 study of the “Incidence of Illness and Receipt of Medical Care among Representative Family Groups” became the basis for the actuarial calculations of Blue Cross Blue Shield and the insurance industry at large. His work as a consultant to the 1927–1932 Committee on the Costs of Medical Care laid the groundwork for some of the country’s most vital health-services programs, among them Social Security, Medicaid, and disability insurance. As an advocate of insurance reform, Sinai was prescient. He believed that if universal coverage were to succeed in the United States, it would have to be developed and managed along local and regional lines rather than centrally administered—a trend that’s happening today in states like Massachusetts and California.

Sinai also revolutionized the teaching of public health. At a time when medical care was not considered a part of the profession, Sinai offered a course on medical care organization at the University of Michigan, the first of its kind in the U.S. Soon schools of public health across the country were following his lead.

Graceful, witty, gentle, he possessed “a style that the rest of us could only emulate but rarely achieve,” said the late SPH Dean Richard Remington. Sinai was also generous. When one of his former students, the late Paul Cornely, needed $175 to get married in 1934, at the height of the Depression, Sinai promptly pulled out his checkbook. “People might wonder whether Sinai’s elegance would cause him to lose the common touch,” Cornely recalled years later. But it did not.

Nathan Sinai—who trained as a veterinarian and went on to receive the second PhD in public health ever conferred in the United States—died in California on November 28, 1977, his 83rd birthday.

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