The study of public health began at the University long before the creation of SPH. In 1916, the Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — recommended a graduate program in public health to provide “thorough training in the prevention of disease and the administration of modern agencies for conserving and promoting the health of the community,” though it’s unclear if the program came to fruition.
In 1972, the Department of Community Health was created as part of the Warren Alpert Medical School. When Vincent Mor — former chair of the Department of Community Health and current professor of health services, policy and practice — joined the faculty in 1981, there were only “three or four faculty members” involved, he told The Herald.
The 1980s ushered in a period of growth for the Department of Community Health, which Mor credits to an “entrepreneurial orientation to building research.” The Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies was founded in 1982, and the Center for Gerontology and Healthcare Research opened its doors five years later.
By the mid-1990s, Warren Alpert boasted nearly ten research institutes focused on community health and over 100 faculty, according to Mor. It was only after this growth in public health research at Alpert that the Corporation approved a master’s program in public health in 1995.
According to Terrie Wetle, the inaugural dean of SPH and professor emerita of health services, policy and practice, “the research programs in public health were much stronger and better developed than the academic program,” which was an “unusual” development in higher education.
In 2002, the Master of Public Health program was accredited by the Council on Education on Public Health, an independent accreditation agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education.
At the time, the Department of Community Health was still attached to the medical school. But conversations had already been brewing for years in favor of a separate school of public health, Mor said.
In the early 2000s, SPH’s hopes of moving away from the medical school created a source of tension. Because 40% of external grant revenue at the medical school came from public health research, the public health program was “a very integral part of the medical school,” Wetle said. With a separate school, “they would lose indirect costs and they would lose very productive faculty.”
Wetle worked under three University presidents, five provosts and four deans of medicine and biological sciences before the School of Public Health was created. Eventually, she received the support of the administration.
When Eli Adashi, professor of medical science and former dean of medicine and biological sciences, came to Brown in 2004, the idea of “creating a School of Public Health came up” immediately.
At the time, community health faculty members were spread out across campus. Adashi — alongside the former provost and the vice president of finance — was tasked with looking for a central location. They toured 121 South Main St., a then-commercial building, walked back up College Hill and decided “right there … to purchase the building,” Adashi said.
“For a while, the building (comprised) a mixed population of the business community and public health faculty,” he added. “As more and more time went by, the entire building was eventually turned into a public health entity.”
After a building was selected, additional programs needed to be developed to become an accredited school of public health. In 2011, the community health department split into the four departments that SPH now houses: Behavioral and Social Sciences, Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Health Services, Policy and Practice.
In November 2012, the faculty unanimously approved a motion to move forward with the school’s creation and move the decision to the corporation. The approval “was met with enthusiastic applause,” according to a Nov. 6, 2012 article from The Herald.
According to 2013 polling data from The Herald, 65% of undergraduates supported the school’s creation.
The Corporation officially approved SPH on Feb. 13, 2013 — bringing a thirteen-year process to culmination. “We had met every goal that had been set for us,” Wetle said. “We had grown the academic programs. We had grown the faculty. We were ready.”
Still, the school had not received accreditation, which created problems for the public health program.
“There were times when we were in competition for an excellent doctoral student, and they would go someplace else,” Wetle said. When they gave their reasoning for choosing another school over Brown, many said “well, it's an accredited school of public health.”
Many instructors Wetle spoke with also said that they would “rather be at an accredited school of public health because (they) can apply for (certain) grants.”
After a three-year process, the school received accreditation in 2016, garnering more opportunities for research funding and attracting students. SPH could then apply for grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and participate in the Schools of Public Health Application Service, which helps expedite student applications.
Now, SPH is home to some of the most sought-after researchers who study the pressing problems plaguing the Rhode Island community and beyond. Since 2013, SPH has made major strides in the field of public health and currently receives over $55 million in annual external funding for its diverse centers and laboratories.
In 2016, the Rhode Island Department of Health established an academic partnership with SPH, allowing for greater collaboration between University faculty and the state. Wetle likened this collaboration to the “equivalent of a teaching medical school or hospital,” allowing the two institutions to be “integrated in (their) teaching and research activities.”
SPH’s faculty and their work shined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Megan Ranney MPH’10, former deputy dean of SPH, led the #GetUsPPE campaign, a push to get healthcare workers adequate protective equipment to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals. Get Us PPE, an organization co-founded by Ranney, donated more than 17 million pieces of personal protective equipment in 2020 and 2021, according to its website.
Ranney was also the founding director of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health and now serves as dean of the Yale School of Public Health.
In September 2020, Jha joined as the dean of public health and became a regular figure on network TV and cable news discussing the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2022, SPH founded the Pandemic Center, an interdisciplinary research center that works to better understand pandemics and develop “the tools, policies and practices to mitigate and prevent their impact,” according to its website.
The same year, Jha temporarily departed his post to serve at the White House. There, he coordinated the winddown of the country’s pandemic response and pushed for COVID-19 vaccination efforts with a $5 billion program.
This summer, the Pandemic Center recruited Seth Berkley ’78 MD’81 as a senior advisor. Berkley previously served as the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which played a major role in vaccination efforts around the world.
Jha also returned to College Hill from his temporary post. In the announcement of his departure, President Joe Biden wrote that Jha “has effectively translated and communicated complex scientific challenges into concrete actions that helped save and improve the lives of millions of Americans.”
SPH has also recently instituted programs to promote diversity in the next generation of public health leaders. The Health Equity Scholars program, launched in 2020, supports students from historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and local communities with scholarships and leadership experiences. This year, 27% of SPH’s students come from historically underrepresented groups, according to SPH’s website.
Wetle said she believes that in the last several years, SPH has worked hard to “recruit a diverse faculty and student body,” which has “improved the School of Public Health and … will continue to be a part of (its) mission.”
What started as a three-person project can now barely contain its faculty on 121 South Main St. “More quickly than we thought would happen, we had grown beyond this space,” Wetle said. “It's the challenge of success.”
As SPH looks to its future, faculty told The Herald that they want to make sure that the school does not lose sight of its roots. Mor said he wants people to think of Brown when they think of the top five public health programs in the country. But he also wants to make sure that this success occurs “without walking away from the integration with the undergraduate world.”
SPH will kick off a year of celebrations on Sept. 27 with an event that looks to “explore the past, present and future vision for public health at Brown,” according to a letter to the SPH community from Jha.
“At the tail end of a historic pandemic,” Jha wrote, “it is an important time to build on our history, renew our commitment and create a bold path forward together.”