Ask any of her former students at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health how Dr. Amy Fairchild, defines public health and they’ll say, “That’s easy. Public health is a debate about what we owe to and sometimes must do to each other in the name of the common good.”
[Photo: Dr. Amy Fairchild]
The Texas A&M School of Public Health was eager to recruit Fairchild back to her home state as its new Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. After all, the school is part of Texas A&M, ranked third nationally in contributing to the public’s good.
Dr. Fairchild, who uses history to help frame pressing public problems—immigration and disease control, privacy and surveillance, paternalism and rights, the uses and abuses of fear, harm reduction and electronic cigarettes—turns to public health ethics as a means of judging the ways in which we collectively decide to take action or set limits on government intervention.
“For me, history provides not an old, but a new way of understanding contemporary challenges,” Dr. Fairchild said.
For example, she was working at the Policy Unit of the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute when New York State began to consider requiring all those who tested positive for HIV to be reported by name.
“The pitched moral and political battles over HIV surveillance raised questions about the broader history of disease reporting,” Dr. Fairchild said. “When and why did populations fear and actively resist disease surveillance? Were there ever cases in which people demanded the right to be counted?”
Those questions led Fairchild to serve as lead author not only on the first sweeping historical analysis of privacy and disease surveillance—Searching Eyes: Privacy, the State, and Disease Surveillance in America—but have also been the basis of collaborative work with the World Health Organization (WHO). Currently, Dr. Fairchild serves as co-chair of the committee developing WHO’s International Guidelines on the Ethics of Public Health Surveillance.
“We are delighted to have someone of Amy’s caliber join our school and are thrilled that faculty from the nation’s top public health schools continue to join the Texas A&M School of Public Health,” said Dean Jay Maddock.
At the Texas A&M School of Public Health, Fairchild will not only continue her teaching, research and service at the intersection of history and ethics, but she will also take the lead in revitalizing the core curriculum.
“My involvement in the process of re-imagining the core curriculum at Columbia University was a watershed moment,” Dr. Fairchild said. “It forced me to think beyond the bounds of department and discipline and, indeed, to reinvent myself as a teacher.” Dr. Fairchild saw at Texas A&M the opportunity to share this experience with the premiere institution in her home state.
Dr. Fairchild received her bachelor’s degree with highest honors from the University of Texas at Austin’s Plan II program. She received both her MPH and PhD from Columbia University, where she joined the faculty as one of the founding members of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health in 1997. She is the recipient of both the outstanding teaching award from the Mailman School of Public Health and the University’s award for outstanding teaching. She is the author of two books and her articles have been published in flagship journals including Science, the New England Journal of Public Health, Health Affairs, the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of Social History and the American Journal of Public Health.
Making Texas A&M so special to Dr. Fairchild is the opportunity to work and teach in a public institution. “Public health may be a debate,” said Dr. Fairchild, “but at the core of any debate is a dream. In the case of public health, it is a dream about justice and social equity. A&M is here to serve the citizens of Texas—all of them—so at an institution like this, a big part of that dream is already realized.”