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Environmental Health Sciences
History of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences
(Jerome O. Nriagu, Stuart A. Batterman, John Gannon)
The University of Michigan has been instrumental in shaping the direction of environmental health teaching and research in the United States with a history that can be traced back to 1873. Since this time, the Environmental Health Program has provided a common thread and a critical component of public health activities in the University, nation and world, and had many "firsts" in environmental and public health including that reach back well over a hundred years, for example,
The following describes key highlights and at least some of the many nationally and internationally significant innovations and accomplishments achieved in the Department and its predecessors. However, this history undoubtedly fails to capture many important aspects. Thus, we apologize for any omissions, and of course welcome any additions to this history.
The development of EHS at the University of Michigan falls into three organizational periods:
The early years (1873-1921)
The University of Michigan was one of the first universities to recognize its public health obligations. The root of organized instruction in Environmental (public) Health at the University of Michigan can be traced to the establishment of the Michigan State Board of Health (MSBH) in 1873. In recognition of the importance of education and research in controlling diseases, the MSBH made a request to the Board of Regents that resulted in the establishment of the first full-time professorship of hygiene in 1887. Appropriation for the Hygienic Laboratory, the first of its kind in the nation, was made by the state legislature in 1887 and the facility was opened in January 1889 with Victor Clarence Vaughan (Ph.D., 1876; M.D., 1878; University of Michigan) as the first director. The objectives of the new laboratory were three-fold: (1) original investigation into the causation of disease, (2) sanitary examination of samples of food, drink and water at a nominal cost to the consumer, and (3) the education center for students interested in hygienic investigations.
Much of the early research dealt with mineral, vegetable, bacterial and animal poisons and their effects on living things. When the hygienic laboratory was being built in 1887, bacteriology was but five years old and there were no trained bacteriologists in the country. In 1888, Dr. Vaughan spent some time in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Koch in Berlin and visited with Pasteur and Roux to learn the new science. The techniques he learned were immediately set up and the hygienic laboratory became the first in the United States to offer systematic teaching in bacteriology to students and physicians. Courses in sanitation (established in 1885) and hygiene/bacteriology (established in 1890) formed the seed from which all later development of courses in public health in the university grew.
Waste problems and the protection of food and water supply were the focus of public health efforts in these early years. Later developments in preventive procedures, vaccines, and antibiotics greatly reduced the poisoning epidemics and risks of endemic diseases and brought attention to bear on other important environmental factors in chronic diseases. The increase in life expectancy from about 47 to over 70 years shifted environmental health concerns to quality of life issues, the effect of pollutants on the increasing prevalence of heart disease, cancer, mental disorders, violence, infertility, and chronic diseases of the aged.
Course offerings at the turn of the previous century reflected the public health interests of the time, with the primary focus being on environmentally related problems. Students were trained in bacteriological methods and acquired an understanding of the nature, sources, identification, and distribution of bacteria and other pathogens while the sanitary engineers were imbibed with knowledge on environmental conditions, routes of disease transmission, and procedures for blocking or controlling these routes. The first Master of Science in Hygiene and Public Health was awarded in 1897 to Dr. Edna D. Day. In 1911, the Board of Regents (a) authorized a two-year course beyond the M.D. leading to the degree of Doctor of Public Health; no such degree was granted until 1916, and (b) approved the program for the degree of Master of Science in Public Health. During the 17 years of (1897 to 1914) when the department was administered by the medical school (as antecedent to preventive medicine), nine master's degrees were conferred in the field of public health. From 1914 to 1941, all degrees in hygiene and public health were offered through the Graduate School which was established in 1912. One of the first two doctorates ever granted went to Vaughan's fourth son, Henry Frieze, following in his father's footsteps.
In some respects, the 1897-1921 period was a golden era for environmental health development in the University of Michigan. Henry Sewall, a former professor of physiology in the medical school recalled the course in sanitary science:
Those indeed were the days of fast-paced advancements in the understanding of environmental agents and their acute health effects. The Hygienic Laboratory became a focal point for research in the state dealing with exposure and toxicity of chemical and biological contaminants in food, water and wastes. Major contributions were made in development of analytical methods for contaminants (Michigan Method of Water Analysis became the standard protocol in many laboratories), and in studies of cellular toxicology and effects of contaminants on the immune system. There were studies on poisoning by arsenic in green wallpaper (by Dr. Luther Warren) and the blastophthoric and other systemic effects of lead (initiated by Alred Scott Wartin) which later led to the basophilic tests (by Carey McCord of the School of Public Health) used throughout the world in screening for lead poisoning. An outcome of the long continued research on lead poisoning was the historic Carl Weller collection of early lead publications which was bequeathed to the medical library when he died in 1956.
Research and training during the period were dominated by the indefatigable Victor Clarence Vaughan (1851-1926) whose MS thesis (1875) on the separation of arsenic from other metals is still of interest and concern for environmental chemists. He later became chairman of the MSBH, first professor of hygiene and physiological chemistry at the University of Michigan, first director of the Hygienic Laboratory and dean of medical school for thirty years (1891 to 1921). The long list of the professor's publications (17 books and over 300 papers and reports) covered many environmental health problems but his forte was the chemical poisons, both exogenous and endogenous, that "might bring disease to the human body". Coca Cola, the icon of American culture owes its survival to Dr. Vaughan's testimony that convinced the court that the coke formula contained no chemicals inimical to health. Dr. Vaughan was a toxicologist par excellence and as such was in much demand throughout the land as an expert witness in courtrooms, legislative halls and government hearing. He became an important member of the American Public Health Association and an ardent spokesman for research by the Michigan group. Dr. McCord, who was a noted figure in EIH department, provided the following observation on the impact of Dr. Vaughan' lectures:
In truth, many of his students did become key players in the field of toxicology. The retirement of Victor Vaughan as the dean of medical school and director of the hygienic laboratory in 1921 brought the first stage in the development of environmental health program at the University of Michigan to a fitting close.
The Sundwall era (1921-1941)
Dr. John Sundwall (Ph.D., Chicago 1906; M.D., Johns Hopkins, 1912) was appointed director of a newly organized and independent Division of Hygiene and Public Health in 1921. He was primarily a builder and the 1921-1941 period was marked by rapid growth in training and research in environmental health in the university. The following excerpt from Dr. Sundwall's review of his own accomplishments bears this out:
Notable developments pertaining to environmental and industrial health included the organization of formal instructions in occupational health that was initiated by Dr. Emory Sink in 1927.
The modern era (1941 - present)
The School of Public Health was created in 1941 using grants provided by the Kellogg and Rockefeller Foundations for a new building, equipment and operating expenses. The new building (now SPH I, entrance shown at right) was dedicated in the fall of 1942 and Professor Henry Frieze Vaughan (Dr.P.H., Michigan 1916) was appointed the first Dean of the School. The school assumed all the faculty and responsibilities of its antecedent, the Division of Hygiene and Public Health. At its inception, the school was divided into three major departments: Environmental Health (including public health engineering and industrial health), Public Health Practice and Epidemiology. Strong science background was generally required for admission, and most of the students were recruited from medical, nursing, and engineering schools and science departments. Programs on social and behavioral risk factors on community health came later.
In the first bulletin of the School of Public health (preliminary announcement) 1941-42, the list of faculty members involved in environmental health teaching and research included Harry E. Miller, Gerald M. Ridenour, Lloyd R. Gates and John Sundwall. The curriculum in the department at that time was designed to meet the needs of those specializing in the field of environmental or industrial health who had the basic training in medicine, engineering or public health nursing. The courses were organized into three tracts aimed at the environmental health administrator, health engineer and public health nurse. Core courses included the following:
Environmental Health 200 (Introduction to environmental health)
The range and richness of courses offered clearly suggests that environmental health was a mature discipline in the university by the time the School of Public Health was created. It is equally remarkable that the comprehensive package of environmental health education was being offered about two decades before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the dawn of environmental awareness among the American public.
A number of important milestones were achieved in the department during the 1940's. From the early days of the hygienic laboratory, research and training on sanitary controls and the environment had been given top billing. Much of the sanitary science was undertaken as a joint effort between the School and National Sanitation Foundation (NSF, now NSF International), a non-profit organization incorporated in Michigan in 1944 with its headquarters in the School of Public Health. This foundation was begun through mutual understanding between national leaders of industry and business leaders and leaders in public health. It served to keep industries informed of sanitation programs in novel production techniques, helped to promote uniform sanitation standards available to manufacturers and health authorities and was used as an organ for promoting education in sanitary science. The NSF has since severed its connection with the School, become one of the largest organizations of its kind in the world, and "certified by NSF" on a product has become an important mark of consumer acceptability.
In 1949, the program on fundamental research in stream analysis, sponsored by the National Council for Stream Improvement of the Pulp, Paper, and Paperboard Industries, Inc. was transferred to the School. The study was developed as a cooperative effort of industry and regulatory agencies and was aimed at defining the natural purification characteristics of streams and could serve as a basis for pollution abatement. Research done under this project led to new techniques for evaluating the hydrological and biological properties and resulted in fuller utilization of the survey water resources located in widely spread areas of the country. Although the project was directed by Joseph Velz in the Department of Public Health Statistics, it nevertheless served as an important training tool for students in Environmental Health Department.
The year 1949 also marked the beginning of substantive commitment in occupational health with the appointment of Dr. Clarence D. Selby, a former Medical Director for General Motors Corporation as a resident lecturer in the School. Related to Dr. Selby's appointment was provision of fellowships by General Motors to be administered according to the "Saginaw Plan". The two-year fellowships in industrial medicine were to be devoted to academic pursuits at the School during the first year and to field activities in industry and at the Saginaw General Hospital during the second year. For a period of years, this "Saginaw Plan" was hailed by the American Medical Association and recognized as an accredited industrial medical internship.
In 1950, General Motors Corporation gave the Department $10 million to establish a teaching program in Industrial Health, responding to the need for trained health and safety professionals in the heavily industrialized Midwest. With over 50 years experience and over 700 alumni, the UM IH Program ranks as the leading institution in the U.S. for graduates with advanced degrees in this field. Alumni span the world and facilitate internships and employment for students and recent graduates.
The current EHS Department
The Department of Environmental and Industrial Health was formed in 1970 by the amalgamation of the Departments of Environmental Health and Industrial Health. In 1979, it incorporated the Program in Toxicology. Other consolidations at the School of Public Health reduced the number of departments from nine to five, and in 1995 the present Environmental Health Sciences Department was formed by the incorporation of Human Nutrition.
Important Dates in EHS