A Tribute To One Of The Father’s Of Public Health

A Tribute To  Lester Breslow

Andrew Siegel, M.D.      Blog # 66


The field of public health is of utmost importance to the vitality and well being of humankind. Public health and sanitation saved more lives than any other cause in the 19th century—the Century of Hygiene; in the 20th century—the Century of Medicine—vaccines, antibiotics, transfusions, chemotherapy, etc., helped contribute to longevity; the 21st century will be the Century of Behavior Change—where longevity will be furthered by reducing risky behavior and making positive changes with regards to exercise and nutrition.

One of the father’s of the field of public health, Lester Breslow, M.D., M.P.H., died earlier this year at the age 97.  Originally intent on becoming a psychiatrist, he changed to public health because he believed it was an appropriate match for his desire to be a political activist for disadvantaged people.  His seminal contributions to the health of our society are more than worthy of a blog.  He was one of the first to prove that we can live longer and healthier by modifying our habits including tobacco use, sleep and diet.  He changed the direction of public health from a discipline with an emphasis on communicable infectious diseases to a field focused on lifestyle, the effects of community and the environment and the emergence of chronic disease.

Dr. Breslow joined the California Department of Public Health in 1946 to found the Bureau of Chronic Diseases. He then became a professor at UCLA School of Public Health and subsequently chairman of the UCLA School of Medicine’s Department of Preventive and Social Medicine. He served as Dean of the UCLA School of Public Health from 1972 to 1980.  President Truman appointed him director of a commission to assess the health of the nation in 1952.  He was elected president of the American Public Health Association and was the founding editor of The Annual Review of Public Health and the editor-in-chief of The Encyclopedia of Public Health. He was also president of the International Epidemiological Association and the Association of Schools of Public Health.

In the 1940’s and 1950’s, he was responsible for some of the earliest studies on the hazards of tobacco and three of these were cited in the surgeon general’s report in 1964 linking tobacco to lung cancer.

One of his major accomplishments was the Alameda County Study, a long-term investigation of the lifestyles of almost 7000 residents of Alameda County, California.  Using quantitative analysis, the study unquestionably proved that one’s lifestyle strongly influences longevity.  The study concluded that to achieve maximal longevity, one must do the following: avoid tobacco; consume alcohol moderately; sleep seven to eight hours a night; exercise at least moderately; eat regular meals; maintain a healthy weight; and eat breakfast.  Dr. Breslow concluded that a 60-year-old man who heeded all seven recommendations would be as healthy as a 30-year-old man who heeded fewer than three.  Considering that this study was initiated in 1965, its results were quite remarkable, although in the 21st century, we take his recommendations for granted.

In 2010, at the ripe age of 95, he co-authored a paper on the life expectancy of a group of Californian Mormans.   The study, conducted during the previous 25 years, concluded that the Morman life expectancy exceeded the life expectancy of the general population of Caucasian males by 10 years on the basis of the Mormans’ clean lifestyle. Although not a Morman, Breslow practiced what he preached, even growing his own organic vegetable garden.  Given his longevity, his healthy lifestyle seems obviously to have supported many of his theories.  He was a man of enormous vision and his contribution to the field of public health was profound.

*Credit to Douglas Martin, writer of Dr. Breslow’s New York Times’ obituary, for much of this information.

Andrew L. Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food


Available on Amazon Kindle

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