hilip Landrigan knew long before the outbreak of COVID-19 that a focus on public health is vital to the stability of a society. He’s been researching this subject his whole career, and when the pandemic hit, he knew how widespread and devastating it could become. Still, when his daughter, an anesthesiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, contracted the coronavirus, he was rattled and disturbed.
“That was a very personal experience,” he said. “I wasn’t able to see her physically, of course, because she was quarantined in her house, but knowing how sick my child was speaks to how vicious this virus is. Contrary to what you’ve heard in some quarters, this is not just the flu.”
Landrigan grew up in Boston and graduated from Boston College in 1963, attending Harvard Medical School immediately after. He then did a one-year internship at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, followed by two years of pediatric residency at Boston Children’s.
“At that time, I was considering going into pediatric practice around New England, but the Vietnam War was going on, and every male physician of my generation was subject to the draft—we had to do two years of national service,” Landrigan said.
To fulfill his service, Landrigan decided to apply to the U.S. Public Health Service. He was accepted and assigned to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention—there, he received an education in epidemiology and began to track epidemics.
“I found I just loved the work. … It made a great deal of sense to me to be looking for ways to understand the spread of disease and prevent disease instead of treating children after they were already sick,” Landrigan said.
Working in public health, Landrigan found that the work he and his team was doing connected to the principles ingrained in him since childhood.
“The work also resonated with all the values that I had received as a kid growing up in Boston, and were reinforced at BC—of service to others, and caring for other people,” he said. “Everything that you do in public health ultimately comes back to social justice.”
While doing research in El Paso, Texas, Landrigan conducted a study he found personally transformative. The study showed that in an area surrounding a factory that used lead smelting, an overwhelming amount of children had lead poisoning, and that a disproportionate amount of these children were poor.
“Disease almost always falls most heavily on the poor and the disadvantaged,” he said. “We’re seeing that play out right now with COVID—the disproportionate heavy impact on African American communities, migrant workers, and other marginalized people. Virtually any disease you can think of falls most heavily on the poor.”
After this project, Landrigan decided to stay on at the CDC. He stayed with the CDC for 15 years until 1985, with a couple of short breaks, including a year spent in Nigeria to be part of a campaign for the eradication of smallpox, a year in El Salvador to serve as the adviser to a national childhood immunization campaign, and a year of graduate school at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for a public health degree.
From 1988 to 1993, Landrigan worked for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health—then came a completely different opportunity for him.
“In 1985, I was recruited to the faculty of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York to head up the program in Occupational and Environmental Medicine,” he said. “And I took that job and I moved to New York City, and I was at Mount Sinai for 33 years.”
uring his time at Mount Sinai, Landrigan served as the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine for 25 years and the dean of Global Health for eight years. Maida Galvez, a former medical student of Landrigan who then worked with him at Mount Sinai, described how Landrigan was always looking to build a community and never did his work in a self-serving way.
“He’s truly a leader in the field in global environmental health who had 20/20 vision for what was needed to advance the field and to truly promote healthier environments for families globally. … And he did it all by working together with partners,” she said. “It was never something that was self-promotional. Whenever he had a vision, it always included working with partners.”
Galvez also described how Landrigan is always looking to mentor those seeking guidance.
“He is dedicated, tireless, and effective, yet always has his door open to trainees at every level. … I think that that’s pretty impressive to sort of see somebody at his level always have an open door and be willing to have a conversation about who you are, where you want to go, and how to best get there,” she said.
Since graduating from BC, Landrigan knew he wanted to give back to the University in whatever way he could. While still at Mount Sinai, Landrigan helped set up a program to bring pre-med BC students to Mount Sinai for a summer internship, which successfully ran for about a decade.
“I’d reached the point where I felt that I’d pretty much done anything I could have done at Mount Sinai School of Medicine for 33 years. … And the last thing I wanted to do is retire. I’m just not that kind of person,” he said.
In 2014, Landrigan returned to Boston as the keynote speaker at the BC Advancing Research and Scholarship event, and he was impressed with the undergraduate programs at BC. While in Boston, he started having some conversations with Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning Tom Chiles about what a public health program at BC could look like.
“That basically started about a two-year, maybe a two-and-a-half-year, period of negotiations, whereby we ultimately recruited him to Boston College,” Chiles said. “And one of the goals in doing that was for him to specifically set up our academic program in global public health.”
n 2018, Landrigan was officially hired as the director of BC’s Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good. The global public health minor was launched in the fall of 2019, and Landrigan hopes to launch the major in 2021.
“In a 24-hour day, he works about 20 hours a day. … When you have somebody of that caliber, you work with them,” Chiles said. “You learn from them. So without realizing it, all of a sudden someone like him becomes a mentor to someone like me.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Landrigan has been working alongside his team in the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good to prevent delays of the launching of the public health major.
“I know that this is a tough time to launch a program,” he said. “Because, obviously COVID is going to have financial implications for BC, but on the other hand, I’ve argued, if we ever needed a program of global public health, this is the time.”
Landrigan said he believes that, not just at BC, but at universities across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a surge of interest in the study of global public health and public health policy. He’s looking forward to the upwelling of interest in public health and how the new major at BC will help these students follow a career they feel called to.
“Some of these people will be in the pre-med programs or the nursing program that want to add knowledge of public health to their knowledge of biology, but I think we’re also going to see people that don’t necessarily want to go into medicine, but want to go into public health as a career,” he said. “And I think we’re going to see a lot of jobs opening up in that area.”
The Global Public Health team is comprised of several new hires—for example, Kurt Straif, an M.D. and Ph.D. from Germany who worked for the World Health Organization for many years, and Rebecca Franckle, an epidemiologist who got her degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. It also includes many professors who were already at BC, such as Mary Ann Chirba and David Wirth, two law professors who jointly teach a public health law course.
Landrigan emphasized the collaborative nature of the group, and how his contribution to the fight against the pandemic was only possible through the work of his team.
“It’s a fascinating group of people with about everything from mathematical modeling to maternal and child health to public health law and public health ethics,” Landrigan said. “And we try to work closely together and coordinate and form a coherent program, and the whole thing just has a great buzz about it.”
Though there are many, one of the projects Landrigan and his team have been working on since the pandemic began is research on how COVID-19 has affected air pollution.
“Despite all the misery and horror that has surrounded this pandemic, one bright spot has been the extraordinary reduction in air pollution around the world,” he said.
Landrigan is encouraged by the many studies that show thousands of lives have been saved because of the reduced exposure to air pollution, and though he knows it’s among grim circumstances, he’s glad his team is researching something that can provide light amid the darkness.
ut this research is not where Landrigan’s work with COVID-19 in the BC community stops. Landrigan has been one of the top consultants with the University on how to deal with the pandemic on campus, and he has been ever since it was obvious that the coronavirus would become a real threat to campus life.
“I’ve been consulting with Boston College, with the University leadership, about every aspect of the thing, basically,” he said. “I first briefed the leadership before the core classes were shut down when talking about options for whether or not to shut down. And then since the shutdown, I briefed them on what elements would need to be in place to reopen.”
Landrigan will continue to advise the University on how to proceed with campus life depending on how the pandemic itself acts and what the state of Massachusetts mandates.
Additionally, when students were sent home on March 15, Erik Owens, director of the International Studies Program, approached Landrigan and Nadia Abuelezam, an assistant professor in the Connell School of Nursing, with an idea to create a “Fireside Chat” webinar about the pandemic.
“He said, ‘After all of you guys have to go home in early March, what can we do to hold the community together and keep people informed about what’s happening with COVID?’” Landrigan said. “The intent was to, every week during the spring semester, give the Boston College community, and anybody who’s interested, give them an update on COVID and what the pandemic was doing.”
Landrigan, Owens, and Abuelezam brought on different guests to these webinars to give different perspectives on the pandemic. Guests included Dean of CSON Susan Gennaro, who gave a nursing perspective on the outbreak, and theology professor Rev. James Keenan, S.J., who discussed the ethical and moral implications of COVID-19. The webinar series concluded just before final exams.
Outside of BC, Landrigan is continuing his passion for occupational medicine throughout the pandemic—he is a member of an international academic group based in Italy called the Collegium Ramazzini that is emphasizing the importance of protecting workers during the outbreak.
“Workers have been so hard-hit—health care workers, workers in other industries like meatpacking, transportation, airlines, cops, firefighters,” Landrigan said. “[We’re promoting] the importance of having a preferential option to protect workers.”
In a recent statement Landrigan helped compose on behalf of Collegium Ramazzini, the group “calls on governments at all levels to protect worker health by strengthening public health systems; maintaining comprehensive social insurance systems; establishing policies that presume all COVID-19 infections in high-risk workers are work-related; enforcing all occupational health standards; and developing pandemic preparedness plans.”
This pandemic has shown the nation’s weak spot in terms of public health and has illuminated how important public health is to the stability of our society, according to Landrigan.
“Public health is just like infrastructure,” he said. “It’s like the pipes under the streets to bring you water and the roads that you drive on, the bridges, stuff you sort of take for granted. You need water, and you turn on the tap. You want to go to the mall, and you jump in your car and you ride down the road. The road is there, you don’t think about who built it, who maintained it. … And then, when a bridge collapses, because nobody put money into maintenance, you suddenly say, ‘Oh dear, infrastructure matters.’”