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Satcher’s lecture explores public health highs, lows

Sep. 25, 2019, 3:35 PM

David Satcher, MD, PhD, center, stands with participants in the David Satcher Public Health Scholars Program. From left are Master of Public Health degree candidates Vicky Waithe, Ni Ketut Wilmayani, MD, Mina Nordness, MD, Muna Muday, Satcher Emmanuel Sackey, MBChB, Carleigh Frazier and Victoria Umutoni.
David Satcher, MD, PhD, center, stands with participants in the David Satcher Public Health Scholars Program. From left are Master of Public Health degree candidates Vicky Waithe, Ni Ketut Wilmayani, MD, Mina Nordness, MD, Muna Muday, Satcher, Emmanuel Sackey, MBChB, Carleigh Frazier and Victoria Umutoni. (photo by John Russell)

by Bill Snyder

Violence is perhaps the greatest public health challenge facing American society today, former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, PhD, said during a lecture at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine last week.

“Science is challenged by politics,” he said. “We can’t agree on any strategy for preventing our children from killing each other in the streets of America. We’ve got to find a way out of this, a way that we can protect the lives of children and families.”

Climate change is another major public health challenge. The problem is, Satcher said, “We haven’t yet heard enough from the public health community about the (health) implications of climate change.”

An enthusiastic crowd of about 300 people packed a Light Hall lecture room to hear Satcher, the founding director and senior advisor of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

His talk, “Revisiting the Highs and Lows of Public Health Practice,” was sponsored by the Flexner Deans’ Lecture Series in conjunction with the Vanderbilt Master of Public Health Program.

It was the 10th in a series of annual lectures given as part the David Satcher Public Health Scholars Program, which since 2009 has provided tuition support and the opportunity to conduct research at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute to students from under-represented backgrounds.

Satcher, who served as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for five years before being appointed the 16th U.S. Surgeon General in 1998, cited the eradication of smallpox in 1980 following a global immunization campaign as one of public health’s greatest achievements.

The lowest point, in his opinion, was the notorious “Tuskegee Study,” which followed nearly 400 men with untreated syphilis beginning in 1932 to study the “natural history” of the disease.

The study went on for 40 years before it was halted in 1972. As CDC director, Satcher and others convinced then-president Bill Clinton in 1997 to give an apology on behalf of the nation that involved some activities to “assure that this kind of thing could not happen again.”

The activities included a commitment that government-funded research involving humans had to engage with the community, an effort aimed at rebuilding public trust in public health. “When the government can’t be trusted,” Satcher said, “public health suffers greatly.”

One public health official who gained the public’s trust was C. Everett Koop, MD, who served as Surgeon General during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. In a very down-to-earth way, Koop communicated what people needed to do to stop the spread of the virus.

“He got America talking about AIDS,” Satcher said. “Having these kinds of conversations is very important.

“It’s not enough to care,” he told his listeners. “You’ve also got to know how to make a difference … We need people who have the courage to act. Finally, it takes perseverance — we need you to persevere until the job is done.”

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