The history of the School of Public Health begins long before the school was ever named. The lineage of the school began in 1874 when Charles Hewitt, the secretary of the State Board of Health, began offering a class in sanitary science covering topics in personal and community hygiene, epidemic diseases and physiology.
In the coming decades, various university departments would create programs in public health disciplines such as biostatistics, environmental health and epidemiology.
In July 1944, a year before World War II ended, the Board of Regents passed a motion to create the School of Public Health (SPH) in order to bring various public health disciplines under one roof. Gaylord Anderson was named to head the new school. Anderson was aiding the war effort by serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.
Famed student health service director Ruth Boynton served in Anderson’s place until he returned from the war. The first graduating class numbered a mere 16 students while the next class swelled to 66 graduates thanks to the end of World War II.
In the years that followed, SPH continued to grow in size. In 1954, SPH consolidated its physical presence, then spread across five buildings on campus, into two-and-a-half floors of the newly constructed Mayo Memorial Building. At the same time, the school continued to expand in terms of academic research and educational programs.
The school was the first in the country to grant a master’s degree in hospital administration in 1948, and founded the nation’s first doctoral program in epidemiology in 1958. Since then, SPH has embarked on many more firsts, expansions and groundbreaking programs that have benefited citizens across Minnesota and the globe.
Early history of SPH divisions
The study of “biometry” began at the university in 1924 when Department of Botany Head J. Arthur Harris offered the course to small groups of biological sciences students interested in using statistics as a research tool. Following the death of Harris, Alan Treloar continued to build on Harris’ work by establishing biometry as a department and major within the Graduate School.
Biometry came under administrative control of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health in 1936 and changed its name to biostatistics to reflect its new affiliation with health disciplines. In 1953, the National Institutes of Health called for a national expansion of biostatistics programs and offered grants to each public health school to help them grow. Mathematician Jacob Bearman capitalized on the increased funding and, by the 1960s, the biostatistics program trained more graduates than any other public health school in the country.
The division leapt forward into the digital age when, in 1972, it developed its own computer center for the NIH’s large Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial.
Environmental Health Sciences
The first existence of the environmental health program traces back to the earliest days of the university when the State Board of Health transferred to the campus and began offering courses in “sanitary sciences” addressing topics in sewage, ventilation, lighting and heating of private homes.
By the 1930s, the formalized Division of Sanitation and Public Health Engineering had emerged under the direction of Professor George Pierce within what was then known as the University’s Health Department. Later in 1949, Professor Herbert Bosch partnered with Ruth Boynton, director of the health service, to create a program dedicated to the control of environmental hazards called public health engineering and later renamed environmental health.
Epidemiology & Community Health
The academic examination of epidemiology began in 1922 as an elective course offered by the Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health. In the 1950s, epidemiology became a distinct graduate and research program first under the brief guidance of Franklin Top, and then more earnestly at the hand of Leonard Schuman. In 1958, the university became the first school in the country to officially declare epidemiology to be a graduate school discipline and eligible for a PhD degree.
The Seven Countries Study
Also in 1958, the school’s most widely known “first” began: a unique population comparison of diet, risk factors, and rates of heart attack and stroke. Called the Seven Countries Study, it put its chief investigator, Ancel Keys, on the cover of Time magazine in 1961.
The Seven Countries Study changed the face of public health and how we think about diet, exercise and disease. It added to the school’s reputation as a leader in the study of cardiovascular disease and paved the way for the popularization of the Mediterranean Diet as one of the healthiest ways to eat.
Origins of Academic Epidemiology at Minnesota (by Henry Blackburn)
Health Policy & Management
A grant from the Kellogg Foundation in 1946 funded the establishment of the university’s first program in hospital administration, a precursor to the Division of Health Policy & Management. While many other schools had programs by the same name, those programs were focused on the financial operations of hospitals.
The Kellogg Foundation sought to create programs that would train administrators from a public health perspective to align hospital operations with the goals of a community health program. The first director of the program was James Hamilton, former director of the New Haven Hospital. The pilot program proved so successful that three years later the university continued to fund it after the Kellogg grant expired.
By 1966, 499 students had completed the master’s in healthcare administration (MHA) program and were working in every state in the country, as well as many foreign countries.
Interdisciplinary Studies Program
In 1968, Prof. Vernon Weckwerth issued a call to hospital administrators for applications to the first-of-its-kind executive education program in the world: the Interdisciplinary Studies Program (ISP). The admissions criteria and curriculum for ISP were the same as those of the University of Minnesota’s MHA program. In ISP, students would spend two weeks on campus each year for three years and participate in a monthly education session in the field near their home institution with an executive mentor who served as preceptor.
History sources: Masters of Medicine, J. Arthur Myers, MD, PhD, 1966; 50 Years: A Legacy & A Vision, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, 1994