Top 10 Public Health Figures That Help Shape The World

By Frank Tucker | Nov 1, 2014

Written by Intern Ian

My life has been affected by public health since the day I was born. When I was born, I was experiencing breathing complications and had to be sent to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Without this breakthrough in public health, I could have very well lost my life that day. The breakthroughs in public health put forth a strong impact in everyone’s lives and often we take them for granted. The various research performed by different medical practitioners and passionate individuals truly made an impact to the world today. Their respective discoveries were able to save millions of people across the globe making public health one of the strong foundations in every community throughout the world.

Florence Nightingale

Every profession needs to work of a stable foundation. It would have been impossible to build cars had we not invented the wheel, and the same applies to public health. The influence of Florence Nightingale in the field of Nursing continues up to the 21st century. In 1859, the whole dynamic of nursing care changed when she encompassed the environment as one of the important factors that can hasten or affect the health recover of the sick patients. Hailed as the leader in the field of nursing, her contributions in public health brought about changes in the patient care. As the founder of modern nursing, her “environmental model” of nursing care postulated five environmental components – clean air, pure water, efficient drainage, cleanliness and light, which can influence the patient’s recovery. Although, the environment theory was recognized centuries ago, its influence to modern hospitals and in the provision of holistic patient care remains evident today.

Dr. Ernst L. Wynder, MD

Smoking and the use of other tobacco products truly is an issue we face in our society today. Educational and rehabilitation programs have helped in raising awareness about the harmful effects of smoking, but they all hold their roots in a study done during the 1950’s. Smoking Cessation is perhaps one of the most litigious public health breakthroughs during this time. Before the world knew the ill effects of smoking, people regarded smoking as one of the most socially accepted behaviors. Coupled with Hollywood exposure and other media platform, smoking influenced teenagers and adults alike, which led to high mortality and morbidity rates. According to the news article published in Bloomberg, the CDC reported that cigarette smoking was responsible for at least 440,000 deaths annually. Dr. Ernst L. Wynder, MD, an American emigrant was credited with one of the most famous public health undertakings, smoking cessation. His lung cancer investigation during the 1950’s paved ways to his published journal to the American Medical Association entitled “Tobacco Smoking as a Possible Etiologic in Bronchiogenic Carcinoma” which was also co-written by a thoracic surgeon Evarts Graham, who later died of lung cancer in 1957, serving as a jump start to many more researchers linking smoking to cancer.

Henry Trendly Dean, D.D.S

I received three cavity fillings from a young age. As such, dental health is an important aspect of public health to me. Dental Caries Prevention through Fluoridation was a public health breakthrough which took place in 1931. The American, Henry Trendly Dean, D.D.S was commissioned by the National Institute of Dental Research (NIDR) to conduct a study, specifically in the relationship between fluoride and mottled enamel teeth, which was prevalent in the United States. After years of extensive data collection and investigations, Dean found out that dental caries among children residing in a community whose water contains fluoride exhibited a low prevalence. The study therefore concluded that fluoride in the drinking water helped prevent dental caries or tooth decay. Today, people in the United States have supported water fluoridation as a cost-efficient prevention of tooth decay.

Margaret Sanger

Family planning is a very important breakthrough in my opinion. Every year hundreds of families are formed unplanned, leading to many conflicts. Family planning is one of the controversial public health breakthroughs in the early 1900s. But in the United States, family planning has contributed to better health to both infants and mothers. Birth spacing is one of the core concepts of family planning using modern means of contraception, which empowers couple to mange their family as well as their individual lives as a married couple. Margaret Sanger, in 1912, started out her cause for a safe and healthy conception through family planning. Despite the political conflict she experienced, her lobbied cause became one of the most influential contributions across the globe. Modern contraception paved ways to pills and intrauterine device (IUD) which eventually led to a smaller family size to an average of two children.

Martha May Eliot

Infant mortality is a health issue dating back centuries. I have a friend whose parents experienced a miscarriage and it is one of the worst experiences a parent could ever face. It can also cause mental scar that no mother or father should have to experience. Maternal and Child Health is another public breakthrough that focused on the health of the mother as well as the child. Martha May Eliot, from Massachusetts, was instrumental to the decline of infant mortality rate across the United States. As one of the strong advocates at the Children’s Bureau, the birth of comprehensive maternal and child services, like pre, peri and post natal came to life. Holistic care was emphasized, which allowed public health care providers to visit homes and conduct programs to educate pregnant women and monitor its progress. Lastly, the initiative of Dr. Eliot and Dr. Edward Parks also contributed to the prevention and reversal of the onset of rickets when they introduced vitamin D supplements to pregnant women.

Milton J. Rosenau, M.D.

When I pour a glass of milk for my cereal, I am grateful to know that what I am drinking is safe. Pasteurization for Safer and Healthier Foods was the brainchild of Milton J. Rosenau, M.D. In 1924; he spearheaded the campaign to make the milk pure and fresh across the United States. This public health development paved ways to food safety, which also concerned various stakeholders, like the farmers, consumers and manufacturers. The initiative of Dr. Rosenau led to the pasteurized milk ordinance which suggested a uniform sanitation measure for the safe shipment of milk. And in the 1990’s, this public health contribution drastically reduced the infection caused by unhealthy food, by an average of 38 cases based the documented reports.

Alexander Fleming

Drugs and medicine have become essential to our society and these days we often take them for granted. I remember when I was getting my toenail removed, the doctor injected some painkiller to numb the toe. I can’t even begin to fathom the pain I would’ve felt without the painkiller. From simple painkillers to life saving vaccines, medicine has become so prevalent in our lives that one can only wonder what we would do without it. The discovery of antibiotics/antimicrobacterial medicines in 1940’s, specifically penicillin (a collective form of antibiotic derived from benzylpenicillin, procaine and benzathine) was instrumental in treating various infectious diseases, like syphilis and bacterial diseases caused by staphylococci and streptococci. It was the Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, also a Nobel Laureate, who discovered this drug in 1928. But it was only in the 1940’s when the drug was fully utilized medically to treat the sick and the wounded soldiers.

Alice Hamilton, M.D.

The workplace can be a very dangerous place, and with a variety of occupations comes a variety of health hazards. When I was working in programming, I was faced with the possibility of posture issues from sitting for 8 hours straight. A year later when I was working with computers, I faced electrical hazards. Safety in the Workplace is one of the most important contributions to public health today, which benefited the entire industrial worker community of today. It was Alice Hamilton, M.D, a US physician, who took credit in creating a safer workplace through her extensive research in the industrial medicine side. It was in 1910 when she started to research occupational hazards and the entirety of its consequences. She championed the occupational epidemiology and in the field of industrial hygiene in the United States. Her study caused the changes in the industrial reforms and in the improvement of health to industrial workers.

Dr. William Haddon

I have just started learning how to drive and have begun to truly understand the hazards involved with driving. No matter how many times I was told in school, it was impossible for me to fully understand the hazards involved with driving until I experienced them myself. Safety in Motor Vehicles is also one of the public health milestones that reduced the vehicular accidents’ statistics and which we all are grateful for. Dr. William Haddon, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was responsible for the systematic motor vehicle safety endeavor. Under this program, the driver, the vehicle and the environment were carefully studied and eventually led to the creation of the driving while intoxicated (DWI) law as well as under age driving law. It was in this era, 1966, where the seat-belt law, wearing of motor cycle helmet and the child-safety seat came about.

Ancel Keys, Ph.D

When I was young, my uncle died of a heart attack. It was a catastrophic event in my life that continues to drive me now towards the occupation I wish to pursue, cardiology. The reduction deaths due to cardiovascular disease is yet another landmark in public health today. CVD is still one of the leading causes of death across the globe today, but its prevalence is far too distant from the 1920’s figures, when the risk factors were not known yet. In the early 1920s up to the 1930s, a CDC report quoted that 40% of the deaths reported were all due to CVD. A US born oceanographer and biologists, Ancel Keys, Ph.D contributed to the modern CVD epidemiology. In 1950’s he found out, through his extensive research the co-relation between cholesterol levels and CVD. In his study, it established that the major risks of CVD were high serum cholesterol, unhealthy lifestyle and habits like smoking, high intake of fatty foods and sodium. His public health contribution focused on a balanced-diet and low-fat diet, which eventually led to the Mediterranean diet book which was co-written with his wife, Margaret Keys.


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