Sep. 11 2018

A Radical Notion: Sociomedical Sciences Celebrates 50 Years

A half century ago, the world convulsed in political tumult: the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, mass mobilizations against the war in Vietnam. It was also a time of radical change in the world of public health, not least of all at the Columbia Mailman School, which in 1968 became first school of public health to offer a graduate degree in the social sciences with a focus on health.

Throughout the academic year, the Department of Sociomedical Sciences is celebrating its first half-century with a series of Food for Thought lectures, beginning, appropriately enough, with a September 12 talk by professors Robert Fullilove and Merlin Chowkwanyun on the legacy of 1960s health activism. Subsequent lectures will address topics from youth tobacco use to energy insecurity. A formal celebratory event will take place in the spring.

The origins of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences start with Jack Elinson, who joined the School’s faculty in 1956, with a joint appointment in Columbia’s Department of Sociology. Elinson, whose career started as a military statistician in World War II, recognized that earlier public health fights against urban epidemics like cholera and yellow fever were already largely won, thanks to improved public health infrastructure and the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics. “By the 1950s, infectious diseases were under control, or at least thought to be, and the major causes of death were chronic illnesses,” he recalled in a school history written prior to his death in 2017.

Elinson and Ray Trussell, who was named director of the School in 1955, partnered on pioneering studies that combined clinical examinations with methods from social science such as a focus on a geographically defined population. Their landmark study of chronic disease in rural Hunterdon County, New Jersey, led the National Center for Health Statistics of the U.S. Public Health Service to initiate a periodic national Health Examination Survey.

In 1968, Trussell created the Division of Sociomedical Sciences as an academic home for the emerging field (the Division would become a Department four years later as the School was granted independence from the College of Physicians & Surgeons). Other faculty, notably Mervyn Susser, the eventual chair of Epidemiology, further advanced the comingling of health and the social sciences—in Susser’s case, through his influential book, Sociology in Medicine.

In the years since Sociomedical Sciences (or “SMS” as it’s known) has grown to 28 full-time faculty, 167 masters students, and 29 doctoral students, with faculty research sites in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. The Department has seen numerous highlights, among them, the creation of the Center for History and Ethics, a WHO Collaborating Center; the Harlem Health Promotion Center; and the Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion. Today, its faculty employ methods from anthropology, behavioral science, ethics, history, political science, psychology, and sociology, as well as frameworks from health promotion and health communication. Faculty examine topics spanning HIV, incarceration prevention, LGBT health, menstrual hygiene, occupational health, substance use, urban health policy, and beyond.

Acting Chair James Colgrove has a unique perspective on the Department, where he completed both his masters and doctoral degrees before joining the faculty in 2004.

“SMS is diverse in its scope of interests and research methods, but united by a desire to address the social forces that shape our health,” says Colgrove. “Our faculty and students are dedicated to investigating the ways diseases are driven by and perpetuate inequalities among vulnerable groups, and we are committed to designing programs and policies to advance health equity.”

Food for Thought Lecture Series

11:45 a.m.–12:45 p.m.
ARB 532

September 12
The Legacy of 1960s Health Activism: Why It Matters Today
Robert Fullilove, EdD, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences
Merlin Chowkwanyun, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences

October 10
Using Mass Media to Reduce Use Among Youth and Young Adults: Evidence from the truth Campaign
Donna Vallone, PhD
Chief Research Officer, Truth Initiative Schroeder Institute

November 7
Let there be Light: Energy, Health and Justice in the United States” 
Diana Hernandez, PhD
Assistant Professor of Sociomedical Sciences