History and Mission

Back in 1949, when the Graduate School of Public Health was founded, we were known as the Department of Microbiology and Epidemiology, and our first chair was epidemiologist and virologist William Hammon.

Hammon had several notable accomplishments during his tenure, including demonstrating that the Philippine and Thai hemorrhagic fevers were caused by dengue viruses (he later isolated the DEN-3 and DEN-4 strains) and purifying the gamma globulin component of the blood plasma of poliomyelitis survivors. He conducted clinical field trials in the early 1950s of more than 50,000 children that showed the injection of gamma globulin was effective in preventing polio. This laid the groundwork for the development of the polio vaccine by Jonas Salk and a team of Pitt researchers in the mid ’50s.

Monto Ho came on board as chair in 1959. A world-renowned infectious disease specialist who would serve Pitt Public Health for nearly 40 years, Ho was a professor of medicine, microbiology, and pathology. He pioneered investigations of interferons, proteins produced by cells in the body in response to an attack by a virus, and his lab identified the source of viral infections that were occurring following organ transplantation—especially cytomegalovirus and herpes—which were major complications of early organ transplants.

Shortly after the arrival of Lewis H. Kuller in 1972, the department split in two, with Kuller taking over epidemiology and Ho the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology. Kuller, who would serve as chair for 30 years, immediately shifted the focus of the department to chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, aging, and cancer and the relationship of lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and smoking to susceptibility. This would lead to, during the subsequent three decades, the establishment of the following long-term, large-scale clinical trials:

  • The Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial in 1972: Determined whether changes in the risk factors known to cause heart disease—elevated blood pressure, levels of serum cholesterol, and cigarette smoking—could be modified in men ages 35–57 and whether modifying the risk factors would reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
  • The Healthy Women Study in 1983: The first study to focus on cardiovascular risk among women during pre- to post-menopause, including effects of both blood hormone levels and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). It would continue until 2012 and established the importance of cardiovascular risk factors as determinants of vascular disease among women to age 75.
  • The Women’s Healthy Lifestyle Project in 1992: Showed that modification of diet and exercise could slow changes in cardiovascular risk throughout early post-menopause as well as the development of vascular disease.
  • The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) in 1994: Has become the largest research study in the world to focus exclusively on women’s health. At the time it began, HRT was used by up to 60 percent of women. Kuller’s research group showed that women who used HRT were at increased risk for stroke, cardiovascular disease, blood clots, breast cancer, and dementia. The findings led to a dramatic drop in the use of HRT and an accompanying dip in incidents of breast cancer.

Our department has produced far too many other important findings over the years to list here, but they include the following (in the order in which they occurred):

  1. the establishment of the Pittsburgh Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus Registry, which led to national and international trials to prevent complications of diabetes; 
  2. research as part of the Study of Osteoporotic Fractures that found that a single bone density measurement could accurately predict the likelihood of spinal fractures in women over a 15-year period;
  3. contributions to the national Systolic Hypertension in the Elderly Program clinical trial, the first to show the effectiveness of treating systolic hypertension in older adults; 
  4. the discovery that older African American women have a lower risk of bone fracture than their White counterparts; 
  5. the finding that Pennsylvania’s repeal of the universal helmet law increased head injury deaths and raised hospitalization costs;
  6. the finding that older women with hypertension have an increased risk of developing brain lesions that cause dementia later in life; and
  7. the finding that, between 1965 and 1980, life expectancy for people with type 1 diabetes had improved by 15 years.