125 Years of EHS

125 Years of EHS

Our Planet, Our Future: 125 Years of Environmental Health Sciences at Michigan

In his keynote address at the 125th anniversary celebration of the SPH Department of Environmental Health Sciences in March, Richard Harris, a science reporter for National Public Radio, discussed his experiences as a reporter covering such stories as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, last year’s nuclear catastrophe in Japan, and the United Nations climate negotiations in December. A contributor to the NPR award-winning series “Climate Connections,” Harris described the challenges of communicating scientific realities to a public that is often skeptical. In a workshop with SPH students, Harris emphasized the difficulties of serving as a conduit between scientists and the public and said that flexibility and curiosity were “invaluable strengths” to anyone interested in a career in science journalism.

Harris’s appearance was part of a day-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of the teaching of environmental health sciences at UM. The celebration also featured skill-building sessions on such topics as blogging, social media, and health-care cost containment; updates on new research; and networking opportunities for the more than 500 people who attended the event, among them hundreds of EHS alumni. Videos of the 8 short talks by EHS faculty are below.


Hit the "playlist" button above or list at right to view all the talks from the "Our Planet, Our Future" series.


Emeritus Interview: “The Environment Itself Has Changed”

Robert Gray joined the faculty of the Department of Environmental and Industrial Health (as it was then known) in 1969, chaired the department from 1986 to 1992, and served as the SPH senior associate dean for research and facilities until his retirement in 2003. He returned for the 2005–2006 academic year as interim department chair. As today’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences marked the 125th anniversary of environmental health sciences at UM, Gray spoke to Findings about the current state of the field:

What’s different about environmental health sciences today, as compared to 1969, when you joined the faculty?
The environment itself has changed. There are more things contributing to environmental problems than ever before. We’ve also seen huge changes in technology and in our ability to detect chemicals and environmental pollutants.

What are the biggest challenges today?
Probably environmental air pollutants, chemical pollutants from industrial exposures. We’re still dealing with the 1940s and ’50s, when things were supposedly put in the ground safely in barrels and would never see the light of day again, but now those barrels are leaking and changing people’s lives.

And in the future?
Since we’re in a global economy, there are certainly going to be food issues from global sources. And then the expansion of developing countries trying to catch up to where we are, and not necessarily paying close attention to some of the environmental hazards that we currently know about, and possibly prone to shortcuts.

What about climate change?
I was probably one of the first ones in the school to start talking about climate change, back in the ’90s. I believe it’s a real threat. If you look back at history, starting with the industrial revolution, when the carbon pattern began to increase very rapidly, you see that it has never ever slowed down. It may have slowed down a little bit now that at least some people believe climate change is a problem, but it’s not perceived as a universal problem by everybody. A lot depends on what happens in the developing countries, how soon they realize that the carbon problem is a major one and take measures to try to reduce their output. And we have to continue to apply pressure here.

EHS Milestones

From its origins in sanitary science to its current work in risk science, epigenetics, nanotechnology, and dozens of other areas critical to human health, the UM Department of Environmental Health Sciences has consistently blazed trails. Here’s a list of standouts from its 125-year history:

  • 1887: With the introduction of sanitary science to its curriculum, UM becomes one of the first universities in the U.S. to teach environmental health.
    1889: UM is the site of the nation’s first hygiene laboratory.
  • 1925: EHS Professor Henry F. Vaughan becomes president of the American Public Health Association, one of four department graduates to head APHA.
  • 1944: The National Sanitation Foundation (now NSF International) is founded at SPH as an independent, nonprofit organization to set standards for the food-service industry.
  • 1950: With $10 million in funding from General Motors, SPH launches a teaching program in industrial health, which subsequently becomes the leading program of its kind in the nation.
  • 1950s: Professor Gerald Ridenauer establishes one of the first laboratories in the nuclear age for assessing radiation levels and providing radiological health training to public health professionals.
  • 1970: Professor Morton Hilbert helps found the first Earth Day.
  • 1973: EHS faculty lead the investigation into Michigan milk supplies contaminated with PBBs (polybrominated biphenyls).
  • 1990: Professor Khalil Mancy develops membrane and bio-film electrodes for detecting toxic chemicals and pathogens in water.
  • 1992: Professor Gerald Keeler begins extensive monitoring and research on mercury in the Great Lakes basin, which leads to federal and state policies aimed at reducing release of the toxin in the region.
  • 1998: Professor Rudy Richardson becomes the first Dow Professor of Toxicology.
  • 2007: Howard Hu becomes the first NSF International Department Chair in EHS.
  • 2010: EHS alumnus Michael Brandt, MPH ’94, DrPH ’97, becomes president of the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the tenth EHS graduate and/or faculty member to preside over the organization.