2003 Science, Technology and Environment

Richard Jackson, MD, MPH

Worked to make environmental public health a national priority.

Of all the reasons people give for why they answered the call to public service, perhaps none of them are more personal than that of Dr. Dick Jackson. When he was three years old, his 27-year-old father died of polio, leaving behind a young wife and three children. Jackson says that personal tragedy motivated him to pursue a career in pediatrics and environmental public health, and it’s ultimately what led him to his current position as director of the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Jackson’s awareness of health threats posed by the physical environment was shaped during his childhood. He grew up in the 1950s near a polluted river in heavily industrial New Jersey. Later, as a medical student, the first autopsy he ever observed was of a man who died from asbestos exposure.

Jackson worked in a number of distinguished positions in the public health arena—serving as a state epidemiologist in New York; an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer for the CDC; and eventually as chief epidemiologist in both environmental and infectious diseases for the California Department of Health Services. In 1994, his career took a new turn when he was named to his current position at NCEH.

He explains the health agency’s mission: “We are like detectives who try to solve mysteries. We start by looking for clues. We study the evidence. We talk to eyewitnesses. We check the suspect’s record and use maps to follow the trail of evidence.”

During his tenure at NCEH, Jackson has led the charge for making urban and building design a top-line public health issue. One of his greatest achievements is implementing bio-monitoring to assess human exposure to environmental chemicals. Tracking levels of metal, lead, pesticides, or other environmental contaminants in water, air, or soil was not a new development in the U.S. But tracking these substances in people was, and Jackson was at the forefront of those efforts.

In 2001, Jackson led the research efforts of the first-ever comprehensive study of the U.S. population’s exposure to 27 chemicals. A second study was released in January 2003, measuring 116 chemical contaminants in all. Both studies present unique information for use by public health officials, scientists, and physicians for preventing diseases resulting from exposures to environmental chemicals, including those associated with terrorism.

In 2001, the Pew Environmental Health Commission challenged the CDC to improve Americans’ health by tracking and controlling the environmental precursors of chronic illnesses such as cancer. In response, the CDC asked Jackson to develop a plan to make it happen, and within months, he had done so. Jackson now leads the program, coordinating the government’s efforts with state and local health departments and with environmental agencies.

Jackson is also strongly committed to educating and encouraging a new generation of public health professionals to carry on the CDC’s important work. As he has told his CDC colleagues, “We must make sure that the work we do continues to do two things: first and foremost, it improves the health of the people we serve, both now and in the future; and, second, it excites the imaginations of a new generation of ‘CDCers.’ We want to attract dedicated professionals from many disciplines who will see that we, as did those who came before us, mean to keep the faith of the people we serve.”

Thanks to Dick Jackson, a champion of environmental public health, that faith is well kept.