Famous Figures in Public Health and How They Changed History (for the Better)

Public health is one of the most important fields in history — and it is barely 150 years old. Thanks to the work of public health professionals, the public understands more about how to keep their bodies and minds healthy than the masses ever have before. Thanks to public health workers, we know to wash our hands, to wash our vegetables, to cover our mouths when we cough and sneeze, to get vaccinated. If it were not for the diligent efforts of public health agencies, people would still be dying in droves from preventable diseases, like typhoid fever and measles, and from avoidable environmental toxins, like lead.

Yet, many of the most important figures in public health are not as celebrated as they deserve to be. If you are considering a career in public health and are about to enroll in a public health degree, here are some of the most important names you should learn today:

Jonas Salk

Arguably the most famous medical researcher of the modern era, Jonas Salk was an American virologist who discovered a vaccine against polio, an infectious virus that causes destruction of the central nervous system, paralysis and death. Instead of patenting and profiting from his vaccine, Salk made the vaccine widely available around the world, ensuring eradication of the disease in the United States and radical reductions in numbers of polio sufferers worldwide.

Edwin Chadwick

A lawyer and social reformer in the 19th century, Edwin Chadwick was among the first true public health professionals in England. At the time, English Poor Laws were woefully ineffective at providing the unhoused and poverty-stricken populations with adequate resources for safety and health. Chadwick worked tirelessly to reform the Poor Laws, especially by improving sanitation in cities and towns across the country. With the removal of raw sewage from the streets and the availability of clean water to drink and wash, public health radically improved.

Waldemar Haffkine

In the late 19th century, Jewish-born Waldemar Haffkine left Ukraine for France, where he joined the Pasteur Institute to learn more about the budding field of germ theory. In the course of his research, Haffkine developed vaccines against cholera and the bubonic plague — which he famously tested on himself — and thus saved countless millions of lives, especially in India, where these diseases were running rampant at the time.

Alice Hamilton

Dubbed the “Mother of Occupational Epidemiology,” Alice Hamilton was one of the first famous female physicians in the U.S. Hamilton focused her career on illnesses communicated in the workplace, and she campaigned aggressively for better workplace conditions to keep workers healthy. Hamilton’s extensive research into occupational hazards and industrial medicine launched widespread reforms that made industrial workspaces safer for workers.

Alexander Fleming

A Scottish physician and microbiologist, Alexander Fleming is celebrated for his discovery of the first antibiotic substance, penicillin, in the 1920s. The incredible utility of penicillin became clear during World War II, when millions of sick and wounded soldiers were saved due to the administration of the antibiotic. Penicillin is still used today to combat bacterial infections, but Fleming’s discovery also drove the development of more advanced antibiotic substances to reduce mortality and improve health.

Margaret Mead

Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead and her work have had lasting impacts on public health thanks to her research and revelations regarding maternal health amongst indigenous people in New Guinea and Samoa. Mead’s insights have lead to improved health delivery systems, reducing the rate of maternal death, especially amongst impoverished and rural populations.

Ernst L. Wynder

Another member of the Jewish diaspora from Eastern Europe, Ernst L. Wynder moved to America from Prussia in the early 20th century. After World War II, Wynder became a physician and medical researcher, devoting his career to understanding cancer and chronic disease — which led him to discover the catastrophic health effects of smoking tobacco. After publishing his findings, Wynder became credited with the massive public health campaign around quitting all tobacco products.

Many people overlook the impact of public health on creating the world of today. By recognizing the contributions of public health figures of the past, we can become inspired to issue in the public health progress of the future.