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March 31, 2005

GSPH celebrates 50 years

By the end of World War II, Pittsburgh was a booming industrial city deserving of its nickname, “steel capital of the world.”

The city also deserved its moniker as “the smoky city,” which in the 1940s was more a source of pride than concern. Older Pittsburghers remember that the street lights in Downtown were kept lit even during the day, but that engulfing darkness, ironically, was a symbol of prosperity, of thriving industries and high employment, of an expanding population and a growing educational and cultural center.

But with industry’s economic benefits came attendant public health issues, including occupational safety, environmental health and industrial hygiene, fields that were underdeveloped and underfunded at the nation’s nine university-affiliated schools of public health.

According to Robert Alberts’s book, “Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787-1987,” 1946 was a landmark year in Pitt’s history. That year, the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, spearheaded by Paul Mellon, offered the Pittsburgh region up to $40 million “in furtherance of the public welfare.”

Mellon sent a confidential letter to six prominent Pittsburghers, among them then-Pitt Chancellor Rufus H. Fitzgerald, soliciting suggestions on how best to use the funding.

Their answers varied, except that all of them cited public and occupational health services as a pressing local need. The Mellon Trust first approved exploring the creation of a school of public health, specifically one tied to an academic medical center, then in 1948 established at Pitt a $4 million endowment for recruitment of faculty and for salaries (later adding another $3 million to the endowment); $1.6 million for operating capital and developmental expenses and, contingent on accreditation, $5 million for a new building.

Fitzgerald named a dean’s search committee that identified as the ideal choice then-surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service Thomas Parran, who had recently announced his impending retirement from that position at age 56.

Fifty years ago today, March 31, 1955, with little fanfare but much significance, ground was broken on the Graduate School of Public Health’s (GSPH) permanent home, now called Parran Hall in honor of the school’s founding dean.

Faculty, staff and students moved into their new headquarters at the start of the 1957 spring semester, as finishing touches were still being made.

Formal dedication of GSPH’s new building was held May 9, 1957, in conjunction with the installation of Edward H. Litchfield as chancellor of the University.

The new building housed modern laboratories, class and seminar rooms, a central cafeteria, a 42,000-volume library, a 267-seat auditorium and a student lounge. Research facilities included shielded areas for radiation and infectious disease studies and a soundproof chamber for industrial health research.

It was designed to accommodate 100 students.

The recruitment of Parran as the new public health school’s first dean, following his 12 years as surgeon general, was a major coup for Pitt. Parran, who was well-known nationally for helping to draft the Social Security Act of 1935, also is credited with professionalizing the surgeon general’s office.

As surgeon general, he penned the Rockefeller Foundation Report analyzing the state of U.S. schools of public health and he authored the definitive study, “Shadow of the Land,” that opened public dialogue on sexually transmitted diseases, then such a taboo subject that their prevention and treatment were obstructed.

He also was well-known in the Pittsburgh health community for a program he started here in 1940, funded by the Buhl Foundation, to expose and eradicate syphilis. The Pittsburgh program made history by putting the forbidden word and subject on the front pages of the newspapers.

Parran spent his first two years as dean recruiting faculty, designing the curriculum, developing research programs, drawing up a budget, establishing a working relationship with seven area hospitals and four other schools in the medical center, obtaining accreditation and finding a home for the school.

In 1950, the new public health school took temporary quarters in the Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital (now Salk Hall) by leasing space there from the city.

In deference to Parran’s efforts, GSPH was accredited in 1950, still the only fully accredited public health school in the commonwealth and the first nationally to achieve accreditation prior to admitting a class of students. The school admitted 30 students in 1950, graduating 12 of them in 1951.

Describing the new school to reporters, Parran said, “For a medical student, the hospital is the clinical center where he studies the patient. For the graduate student of public health, the community is the patient and the field training center.”

Parran, who served as GSPH dean until retiring in 1958, died in 1968.

As the demand for public health education increased, an addition was built onto Parran Hall in 1968. It was named Crabtree Hall in honor of James Crabtree, who served as GSPH’s second dean from 1958 to 1966.

Since the school’s inception, GSPH students and graduates have represented all U.S. states and at least 45 countries. There are more than 5,000 GSPH-trained alumni. The school ranks third nationally in attracting National Institutes of Health research funding.

In 1963, GSPH established the annual Thomas Parran Lecture, this year to be held today on Parran Hall’s groundbreaking anniversary at 3 p.m. in the GSPH auditorium (G-23).

Noreen Clark, dean and Marshall H. Becker Professor of Public Health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health (UMSPH), and one of the nation’s leading public health educators, will speak on “Achieving the Promise of Public Health.”

Clark has served as a faculty member in the UMSPH’s Department of Health Behavior and Health Education since 1981, serving as department chair for eight years. She also is professor of pediatrics and communicable diseases with the UM medical school.

A noted researcher in asthma, public health, women’s health and behavior, Clark received her Ph.D. from Columbia University. A member of the Society of Public Health Education since 1974, she served as the organization’s president in 1985-86 and also is a distinguished fellow of the society.

Much of Clark’s research is directed at identifying the elements of self-regulation in asthma and heart disease.

Internationally, her work has focused on the development and testing of interventions designed to improve health status, quality of life and collaborative activity among rural people in Kenya and the Philippines.

GSPH also announced the winner of the 2005 Porter Prize, which honors individuals for exemplary efforts to promote health and prevent disease.

Entertainer, comedian, actor, educator and social commentator Bill Cosby will receive the prize when he speaks with students and parents from Pittsburgh’s Reizenstein Middle School during GSPH’s “A Conversation With Bill Cosby” set for 6 p.m., April 5. The program will be broadcast live on Pittsburgh’s WAMO-AM (860 AM).

According to school officials, Cosby was selected as the 2005 recipient of the Porter Prize in recognition of the health promotion messages he has shared with audiences over the years through his writings, television programs and stand-up comedy routines, as well as through community conversations in cities across the nation.

His latest book, “I Am What I Ate and I’m Frightened!!!” which was released last October, entered The New York Times best seller list at No. 5. The book offers hip, humorous, hard-earned wisdom on healthy lifestyles and the behaviors behind them.

Emphasizing topics such as good nutrition and positive healthy behaviors, Cosby will use his educational background, comedic skills and passion for improving children’s lives to discuss the importance of healthy lifestyles at the Porter Prize event, GSPH officials said.

Established in 1983 by the Health Education Center, Inc., to heighten awareness of health promotion and disease prevention, the Porter Prize is named in honor of the center’s founding chairman Milton Porter (1910-1996), who also served as a director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Carnegie Institute.

Since 1999, the prize has been administered by GSPH with support from The Adrienne and Milton Porter Charitable Foundation.

—Peter Hart

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