Philip Landrigan, M.D. (Caitlin Cunningham)
For his work to improve public health in the United States and around the world, Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., founding director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, will receive the Gold Honor Medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences on December 6.
Landrigan, who also directs BC’s Global Observatory on Planetary Health, will be honored along with Hunter College President Jennifer J. Raab, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History, as “individuals who have made the highest contribution to the improvement of society” at the institute’s annual Gold Medal Gala.
“I am deeply honored to receive the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Honor Medal,” he said. “But public health is never the work of one person. It is the work of teams of selfless and incredibly dedicated people who commit their entire lives to the preferential option for the poor. I accept this medal on behalf of all the many friends and good colleagues with whom I have worked in public health for over 50 years.”
“Public health is an extraordinary vocation...One of its main goals is to end—or at least lessen—the sharp disparities in health that separate white from Black, rich from poor, and mainstream from marginalized.”
A pediatrician, public health physician, and epidemiologist recognized as one of the world’s leading advocates of children’s environmental health, Landrigan uses the tools of epidemiology to find the connections between toxic chemicals and human health, especially the health of infants and children. He is particularly interested in understanding how toxic chemicals injure the developing brains and nervous systems of children and in translating this knowledge into public policy to protect health. He is a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
Landrigan’s early studies of lead poisoning conducted in collaboration with his colleague the late Herbert L. Needleman, M.D., demonstrated that lead is toxic to children even at very low levels and contributed to the U.S. government’s decision to remove lead from paint and gasoline, actions that reduced population mean blood lead levels in the U.S. by more than 90 percent.
As a teacher, Landrigan said he tries to share with students the rewards of deeply challenging research and policy work and the opportunities to help improve the lives of others.
“Public health is an extraordinary vocation,” Landrigan said. “It is intellectually deeply satisfying because it uses state-of-the-art science to discover the root causes of health and disease and to devise strategies for health promotion and disease prevention. But public health is also good for the soul. It is rooted in a philosophy of social justice, and one of its main goals is to end—or at least lessen—the sharp disparities in health that separate white from Black, rich from poor, and mainstream from marginalized. This is the gist of what I try to convey to my students.”
A study Landrigan led in the 1990s at the National Academy of Sciences defined children’s unique susceptibilities to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, catalyzed fundamental revamping of U.S. pesticide policy, and led to passage of the Food Quality Protection Act, the only federal environmental statute containing explicit provisions to protect children’s health.
In his prior position as a professor and physician at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, Landrigan was involved in the medical and epidemiologic follow-up of 20,000 9/11 rescue workers. His studies documented that more than 40 percent of these men and women have persistent abnormalities of pulmonary function and that approximately 15 percent have mental health problems related to their service.
From 2015 to 2017, he co-chaired the Lancet Commission on Pollution & Health, which reported that pollution causes nine million deaths annually and is an existential threat to planetary health. To continue the work of the Lancet Commission, Landrigan launched the Global Observatory on Planetary Health shortly after joining the BC faculty in 2019.
One of the nation’s oldest honorary societies, the National Institute of Social Sciences has presented Gold Medals each year since 1913 to men and women whose lives have manifested the highest achievements and who have made significant contributions to society and to humanity. Recent honorees include diplomat Madeleine Albright, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., physician Paul Farmer, M.D., Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, M.D., economist John Kenneth Galbraith, author Ron Chernow, economist Paul Krugman, and Olympian Michelle Kwan.
Ed Hayward | University Communications | November 2022