School ushers in new era

Bloomberg: Interest in public health, and Hopkins' graduate institution, continues to grow.

April 24, 2004|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

"This place is on a roll."

Dr. Alfred Sommer, the gregarious dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was waxing enthusiastic, gushing this week as he hustled a visitor through the atrium of the school's $130 million new home.

Sommer has good reason to boast. In addition to the school's expansive new digs, enrollment is up and newly hired researchers are moving into the labs almost as fast as they're equipped.

Perhaps most important, the school has become a money magnet, drawing millions of dollars from moguls such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and financial wizard Michael R. Bloomberg - now mayor of New York.

Bloomberg, a Hopkins alumnus, joined local and state officials yesterday at the school to officially dedicate the glass and steel building that bears his name.

All this fanfare surrounding public health remains a bit surprising to Sommer, who still tells the story of what happened following his first meeting with university trustees in 1990, soon after he had been named the school's dean. Sommer said he invited trustees to visit his office. "Many had no idea where the school was," he recalled.

No more. The 88-year-old public health school, the oldest of its kind in the country, is now one of the most bustling on the medical campus. "Over the last four or five years, the world has woken up," Sommer said.

And Hopkins is not alone. "Public health is much more visible," said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "You are seeing more and more people investing in public health."

Benjamin points to the anthrax attacks of 2001, post-Sept. 11 fears of dirty bombs and bioterrorism, the sudden rise of SARS and other infectious diseases, and an obesity epidemic as issues that have put public health in the spotlight.

The headlines have helped drive students to Bloomberg and other graduate schools of public health, said Dr. Harrison C. Spencer, president of the Association of Schools of Public Health. Since 1990, applications to Hopkins' school have increased 60 percent. Last year, the school enrolled 1,735 of 2,508 applicants.

Money is flowing, too. Hopkins pulls in a quarter of all federal research grants awarded to the nation's 35 schools of public health. And private donations are on the rise.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the school $20 million in 2000 to expand research on global nutrition and $40 million to hasten the development of measles vaccine.

In 2001, an anonymous donor gave the school $100 million to create the Malaria Research Institute, whose labs fill much of the new building.

Last year, another anonymous donor gave the school $20 million to create the department of behavior and health, which will focus on the growing problems of obesity, stress and domestic violence.

After showing off the new building, Sommer paused to sum up his feelings on the changes at the school and in the field. The dean came up with another tale about a trustee.

Shortly after the first anthrax attack, Sommer said, he bumped into one of the university trustees who only a few years earlier had no idea where the public health school was. The man grabbed Sommer's arm, looked at him gravely and said, "Al, we're counting on you to protect us."

"That," Sommer said, "is the switch that has taken place."

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