The University of Washington School of Public Health honored a record batch of graduating students in a celebration led by Dean Howard Frumkin and public health titan Dr. William Foege.
“You will become the ancestors of people who, hundreds of years in the future, will benefit because you lived—and they won’t know to thank you,” Dr. Foege told nearly 350 graduating students before a crowd of more than 2,000 at Alaska Airlines Arena. “We don’t know what society will look like with better health, but you’re going to show us.”
The 2016 graduating class features a total of 624 students – 64 with doctorates, 288 with master’s degrees and 272 with bachelor’s degrees. That’s a 32 percent increase over last year, fueled by growth across graduate and undergraduate programs.
Dr. Foege, known for helping devise the successful vaccination strategy that put an end to smallpox, welcomed graduates as “part of the flow of public health history.”
He noted Dr. Pearl Louella Kendrick, the American bacteriologist who developed the first vaccine for whooping cough. He praised Drs. Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose polio vaccine stopped the virus in nearly every country in the world. And he told the story of Dr. Edward Jenner, who in 1796 tested the protective properties of cowpox by giving it to someone who had not yet suffered smallpox.
Nearly 200 years later, Dr. Foege devised a vaccination strategy to contain the spread of smallpox while working in Nigeria. He went on to serve as chief of the Smallpox Eradication Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before becoming CDC director from 1977 to 1983. He has also played key roles in global health at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carter Center in Atlanta, the Task Force for Global Health, and Emory University.
In 2012, Dr. Foege received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. He is an affiliate professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington.
Dr. Foege asked the graduates to approach public health with “unwarranted optimism” and encouraged them to continue the pursuit of equity. “No public health problem is as large as the problem of poverty,” he said. He concluded by saying, “The most important public health results are still in our future and they will depend on you.”
Also addressing the class of 2016 was graduating PhD student Ms. Jean Morrison, this year’s doctoral recipient of the Gilbert S. Omenn Award for Academic Excellence, the school’s highest honor. “Within a single school we train biostatisticians and health care providers with clinical practices,” she said. “We train people who care passionately about air pollution, nutrition, access to health care, HIV, and so many more seemingly disparate fields.”
Ms. Morrison added: “Despite these differences, we all seem to be connected by a shared desire to contribute to improvements in quality of life for the people with whom we share our local and global communities. We are committed to drawing honest conclusions based on evidence and constantly questioning both new ideas and the status quo.”
Dean Frumkin, noting the record turnout for graduation, described the graduates as visionaries, pragmatists, change agents, scientists and heroes. “Today’s graduates,” he said, “will carry the public health torch well into the 21st century, here in our community and globally—controlling infectious diseases, fighting heart disease and cancer, eliminating disparities in health based on skin color, wealth, or zip code, leading and improving our health care system, educating the public, crafting and implementing public policies that promote the greater good.”