The Department of Public Health can trace its beginnings to 1899, when, one year after its founding, Cornell University Medical College established the Department of Hygiene and Sanitary Science – one of the special departments of Medicine and Surgery. Prior to that time, no instruction was given to Cornell Medical students on environmental control or the prevention of infectious disease transmission. The Department, which was created to enhance undergraduate education in hygiene and to address the growing demands of public health, served as a nucleus for the development of the present-day Department of Public Health. Dr. William Williams was the college's first Lecturer in Hygiene, teaching from 1899 through 1904.
Dr. John C. Torrey, who later became our first chairman, joined the Medical College’s faculty in 1903 as a Lecturer in Bacteriology and Experimental Pathology. In 1908 he began teaching classes in hygiene, along with Dr. Walter Bensel. Dr. Torrey was appointed the College’s first Professor of Hygiene and head of the department in 1916. In 1927, he was granted permission to change the Hygiene Department’s name to the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine to better reflect the content of the subject matter presented in his courses. At the same time, its organizational structure was raised to that of a full department.
In 1937, the Department moved to the newly constructed Kips Bay-Yorkville Health and Teaching Center on East 69th Street. The building’s name was later shortened to the Kips Bay Building. Read more about the purpose and history of this historic location.
Departmental projects under the leadership of Dr. Wilson Smillie, who served as Chairman from 1937 to 1955, anticipated many of our current healthcare concerns and issues, with a particular focus on medical sociology. He wrote about the importance of preventive medicine and forward thinking: “[Physicians] need to predict what the social structure will be during the next 30 to 50 years and to try to understand what problems in medical care will arise.” Dr. Smillie was also interested in the effectiveness of multi-phasic screening tests for the early detection of syphilis, tuberculosis, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
While Chairman, Dr. Smillie developed major changes to the content of what students at the College were taught. These included incorporating preventive medicine as an integral part of clinical practice and understanding the responsibilities of the community and the practicing physician in health protection and health promotion.
When Dr. Walsh McDermott—a nationally known researcher in infectious disease and a major leader in the development of local and national health policy—became Chairman in 1955, his research helped to establish the branch of public health on which we currently focus. Interested in the role that better medical care could play in the health of a population, his progressive ideas formed the foundation for the work we do today. Dr. McDermott believed that medical schools and hospitals should be conscious of the full spectrum of healthcare delivery from the poor to the middle class and affluent. An important health services research project under his leadership was the Arizona-based Navajo-Cornell Field Health Project conducted from 1955 to 1962. The project involved research on the problems of introducing modern technology, such as medicine and medical care delivery systems, into a tribal society. It was instrumental in establishing a program which both aided the Native Americans and provided an approach for the U.S. government to follow in its foreign aid policies toward developing nations. During Dr. McDermott's tenure (in 1960), the Department's name was changed to the Department of Public Health.
From 1972 to 1992, Dr. George G. Reader served as Chairman, bringing his internationally recognized expertise in the fields of community medicine and medical education to our Department and thereby further broadening our agenda. He continued Dr. McDermott’s focus on the sociological component of medicine—the behavior of patients and how they react, or don’t react, to health services and delivery methods; and how health services can be improved. From 1952 to 1969, before beginning his 20-year leadership of our Department, Dr. Reader served as Director of the College’s Medical Comprehensive Care and Teaching Program. The program offered fourth-year medical students a synthesis of the many disciplines to which they had already been exposed, including a public health focus on more advanced epidemiologic studies of diseases important to clinicians.
By the 1980s, the Department of Public Health was involved in a wide range of research including the effect of the AIDS epidemic on the U.S. healthcare system, drug and alcohol abuse, death and dying, HMOs and other managed care approaches, healthcare for the homeless, and smoking prevention assessment.
Dr. Robert B. Millman, who later headed our Division of Community and Public Health Programs, was named Acting Chair of the Department in 1992, a position he held until 1999. Dr. Millman had been appointed the first Saul P. Steinberg Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health in 1989. The professorship was endowed specifically to promote research, education, and treatment in the field of substance abuse and addictive diseases, an area of emphasis developed during his tenure and one on which he continues to focus.
Upon joining Weill Cornell as Dean in 1997, Dr. Antonio Gotto Jr. renewed and strengthened the Medical College’s commitment to the Department of Public Health. In September 1999, Dr. Alvin I. Mushlin was recruited from the University of Rochester and named Chairman of the Department and the Nanette Laitman Distinguished Professor of Public Health. This new professorship was endowed by Mildred Lasdon in honor of her daughter, Nanette Laitman. His arrival set in motion a strategic plan, recruitment of new faculty and the complete renovation of departmental research and administrative space.
Dr. Mushlin reorganized our Department into its current division structure and has strengthened our research and academic programs. At the time of his arrival, the Department became a clinical, as well as basic science department, and Dr. Mushlin was named Public Health Physician-in-Chief at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. This has led to an increasingly important role for the Department in support of our healthcare institutions. Following in the footsteps of our Department’s former leaders, our work addresses contemporary healthcare concerns and issues ranging from the development of local and national healthcare policy to the prevention of smoking, violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. We are interested in the issues of quality, access and cost of care. As we continue our activities in the future, we recognize that the changing dynamics of the health care system and rapid advances in medical science demand that the expertise and resources of the Department of Public are utilized in order to deliver health care effectively and efficiently. We also recognize that in doing so we should anticipate even greater advances in our patients' and our population's health.
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