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New Center Bridges Disciplines and Diverse Themes

The Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health will host an official opening gala on Thursday, November 8, featuring Richard C. Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Reearch Professor at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Details about the time and location will be announced soon.

The Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health brings together an outstanding faculty of scholars from the Columbia community, providing a locale for the study of the relationship of historical change to the social, political and ethical questions that frame public health practice today. Located in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health, the Center adds a new dimension to what is already an outstanding faculty of social scientists and policy analysts who are involved in investigating and evaluating critical questions of public health practice. The Center faculty, drawn from the Mailman School of Public Health, our sister Center for the Study of Society & Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the History Department at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, are deeply involved in a range of historical, ethical and social policy questions that go to the heart of public health practice. Different faculty study ethical and philosophical questions regarding the potential conflict between personal rights and public health surveillance, the historical relationship between health and social factors, war as a public health issue in Kosovo and Africa, the history of breast cancer, hospital care, human experimentation, urban development and social class, tuberculosis, immigration and demographics, legal disputes over responsibility for risk, and the impact of industry on the health of consumers and laborers, among other issues. While the variety of topics is large, they are all tied together by the fundamental belief that historical and ethical analysis is essential for developing good policy regarding health and that it is the obligation of historians to provide depth and analysis to contemporary health debates. The faculty see history as a tool for effecting social change and revealing the mechanisms of society that both limit and provide possibilities for change. In this sense, this Center is unique in dedicating itself to the scholarly dissection of contemporary problems.

In addition to its scholarly agenda, the Center is intimately involved in the training of students to use history in their everyday work as public health practitioners. It is one of the three legs of the Mailman School of Public Health's Program for the History and Ethics of Public Health and Medicine that awards the MPH and PhD degrees to students at Columbia. The Program, organized in 1998, is a joint collaboration of the Center, the Center for the Study of Society & Medicine at P&S and the History Department. Over the course of the past three years a striking array of students have entered, all exploring new ways to incorporate their interests in history and ethics into their education and the practice of public health.