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At EPH reunion, a global perspective

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Fall


Public health has become a global affair, John Ashton, M.D., told alumni of Epidemiology and Public Health who gathered for their annual reunion on June 5. Today’s pressing issues—HIV and AIDS, drugs, food technology, genetic engineering—know no boundaries, said Dr. Ashton, the keynote speaker for the reunion. Although he is regional director of public health in Liverpool, England, Dr. Ashton said he felt like a “virtual alumnus” of Yale, because of his work over the past decade with Lowell Levin, M.P.H., ’60, D.Ed., who retired this year.

Dr. Ashton made his reference to Dr. Levin during his talk, Health Threats to Urban Life; Is It Too Late to Save Our Children? “We need a public health response which is a global public health response,” Dr. Ashton said, contrasting the present with the past. “The cities of 150 years ago could quite happily think of themselves as self-contained. We are now at the point where the majority of the world’s people will be living in large cities and towns. Most babies are being born into large towns and cities for the first time.” Increased speed of travel and the increased urbanization of the planet often divorce health issues from their local origins and deny public health workers local solutions, he said.

He noted a danger in the concentration in cities of large numbers of young men with no stake in their communities. “The events in Jakarta over the last two weeks are the tip of an iceberg which we have yet to see,” he said, referring to riots in Indonesia in May. “Is it too late to save the cities? In many ways that is the wrong question. The fate of our cities is indivisible from the fate of the planet.”

Many of those at the reunion had come to bid farewell to Dr. Levin, who started teaching public health at Yale in 1963 and plans to continue teaching part-time in his retirement.

“It’s unfortunate that it takes Lowell threatening to leave that brings us all together,” Dean Michael H. Merson, M.D., joked before turning reflective. “We would never want Lowell to leave us. He will be a major part of our school for many years, even though he claims to be retiring.”

Friends and colleagues took turns telling tales about Dr. Levin at a Friday evening roast under a tent on the lawn in front of the EPH building. Dr. Merson described Dr. Levin’s unorthodox approach to founding the school’s international division. “There is no record of this division ever being created,” the dean joked, noting that he can find no memos, no paperwork, nothing to trace the division’s history. Mr. Levin simply created it, he said. “Lowell just took advantage of people being out of town and on sabbatical.”

About 200 people came to the roast and reunion. “Maybe this time you’ve come to see if he’s really going to do what he keeps threatening to do—say bye-bye to Yale,” Joel Kavet, M.P.H. ’67, master of ceremonies, told the crowd. “We risk the prospect of turning Lowell Levin loose on an unsuspecting world.”

Friday morning, alumni attended a series of seminars on a variety of public health issues, including HIV/AIDS, urban health, alcohol and asthma. In the afternoon, alumni panels described their experiences and discussed the relevance of programs to public health practice.

For many alumni, the reunion was more than a coming together of former classmates—many had crossed paths in their professional lives. “It’s striking,” said David A. Kessler, M.D., dean of the medical school, at a Friday afternoon luncheon for EPH alumni. “There are so many of you that I know and have grown up with.”

Dr. Kessler singled out one alumnus who served as his mentor in Washington in the 1980s: Samuel P. Korper, MPH ’69, Ph.D. ’76, was honored as this year’s distinguished alumnus. “I decided, on a volunteer basis,” Dr. Kessler recalled, “to spend some time on the Hill. I walked in in 1981 and I knew nothing. I had no idea of how that town worked.” Working as an unpaid aide to the Senate’s labor and human resources committee, Dr. Kessler was assigned to reauthorize three programs. “I had no idea what to do. It was at that time I was fortunate enough to meet Sam.” Dr. Kessler, of course, went on to become commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “I could not have been in a position to contribute and function in that town had I not been trained by Sam Korper. He has shown throughout his career such tremendous dedication to improving the health of our country.”

Dr. Korper started his career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nyasaland in central Africa. By the time he and Dr. Kessler met, Dr. Korper had been in Washington for about three years. Dr. Korper worked at the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health, where he was director of the division of legislative analysis. He now serves as senior advisor to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In his talk to alumni, Dr. Korper offered a mixed view of the state of public health in this country. Too few graduates are seeking long-term careers in the public health, he lamented. On the other hand, he added, “the opportunities in public health, in both the public and private sectors, from the molecular to the global, are truly breathtaking.”

The ethos of public health, he noted, includes public service, usefulness and altruism. It is, he said, “a profession that has an incredible array of critically important responsibilities.”

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