In August, Harvard School of Public Health’s newly appointed archivist, Heather Cristiano, was awarded a Sewell Stipend to attend the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting. This stipend is sponsored by the Grace and Harold Sewell Memorial Fund, which was established with the intention of increasing librarians’ effectiveness at providing reliable/relevant information to public health professionals. Heather was the only (and rumored to be the first!) archivist to receive the award.
As a Sewell Stipend recipient, Heather attended the APHA’s annual meeting in Boston from Sunday, November 3rd until Wednesday, November 6th under the mentorship of David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). As part of the mentoring experience, Heather attended two sessions that included presentations from Dr. Hemenway on gun violence prevention, and spent time informally connecting with Dr. Hemenway and his colleagues to learn more about public health within the context of Harvard.
In addition to these requirements, Heather also volunteered with the Spirit of 1848 caucus at a late-night lecture given by Winona LaDuke, and sought informational interviews from Spirit of 1848 caucus members Nancy Krieger, Professor of Social Epidemiology Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at HSPH and Anne-Emanuelle Birn, Professor of Global Health/Social and Behavioral Health Sciences at the University of Toronto.
Heather’s ultimate goal for her conference experience was to come away with a better sense of both contemporary and historic public health issues, particularly those outside the context of a university. This knowledge, in turn, would allow her to make better strategic collecting decisions for the newly formed Harvard School of Public Health archives.
Of course, Heather came away from this four day conference experience with much more than she had bargained for! Her main takeaways included:
- Public health issues are interconnected. During his opening address for the conference, Michael Marmot connected income inequality with health disparities; in her presentation Climate Change, Public Health and Indigenous Peoples, Winona LaDuke reported increases in incidents of violent crimes, traffic crashes, and crimes against women in communities exposed to fracking; Food is Medicine and Prevention focused exclusively on the concept that adequate nutrition reduces health care costs; Farm to Preschool emphasized connecting schools with local growers, which in turn improves the local economy as well as the health of individual families—these are only a few examples of conference sessions that painted a clear picture of how public health issues are interrelated.
- How crucial (and visible) an archival perspective is to modern public health research. It was fascinating to note the many different presentations that utilized historic research: Richard Mizelle’s presentation on the relationship of population displacement to obesity and diabetes; Teddy Roosevelt’s pioneering decision to institute “public cooling” during the 1896 heat wave by distributing ice blocks to New York City residents; Dora Anne Mill’s review of the role of Maine public health policies during the 1918 flu epidemic; the crucial convergence of Medicare, the civil rights movement, and commitment from President Lyndon B. Johnson that led to the desegregation of hospitals in the 1960s. These four examples are only a small sampling of the thought-provoking research presented at this year’s conference that relied heavily on a historical perspective on public health.
- The importance of looking back at our history and making conscious departures from the status quo. In the session Sandy Hook Reflections and Solutions, presenting author Timothy A. Akers began with Einstein’s quote “problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” This theme reemerged time and time again—that only through reflection can we move forward to a better solution for the future. Along these lines, David Hemenway stated in Legal Approaches Targeting Firearm Manufacturers and Distributors that in order to address illegal firearm use, it is imperative that our culture shift from current methods of blame and political finger-pointing to a change in social norms in conjunction with law. Making a direct comparison to motor vehicles, Dr. Hemenway spoke about how our culture has shifted its perspective on drunk driving; as a culture we now know to recognize a dangerous situation before it happens, and take away keys from an inebriated driver. Could we not also develop a similar concern for friends and family members who are experiencing tough emotional times, and offer to temporarily store their guns away in a safe (and unknown) place?
Heather was grateful for this conference experience, as well as the opportunities afforded to her through the Sewell award, which has further developed her understanding of public health from the perspective of the professional and increased her understanding of public health patrons’ roles and needs.