Women Public Health Changemakers

Sixteen Women Who Changed Public Health

As UC Berkeley marks 150 Years of Women, we highlight 16 women who exemplify the best of Berkeley Public Health.

October 3, 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the UC Regents’ unanimous approval of  a resolution by Regent Samuel F. Butterworth: “That young ladies be admitted into the University on equal terms in all respects with young men.” The first women were admitted to the university in 1872, and the first woman, Rosa Scrivner, graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Agriculture in 1874. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of women have graduated from UC Berkeley, and thousands of staff, faculty, and friends of the campus have made immeasurable contributions to our campus and beyond. Here are 16 women who exemplify the best of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

Dorothy Nyswander: The Mother of Health Education & Co-Founder of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health

Born in 1894 and often referred to as “the mother of health education,” Dorothy Bird Nyswander was a woman ahead of her time.

As a single mother, Nyswander taught high school while earning her doctorate in psychology at age 32 from UC Berkeley. During the Great Depression, she began working in public health as part of the Works Progress Administration and during World War II she helped set up government-funded nursery schools for the children of working women. She became the director of the City Health Center in Astoria, Queens, and her analysis of the health problems of New York schoolchildren, “Solving School Health Problems,” is still part of public health education courses.

In 1946, Nyswander was one of four co-founders of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and developed the graduate curriculum in health education. After leaving her teaching position, Nyswander embarked on a 16-year career with the World Health Organization, during which she developed health education programs in Jamaica, Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere. 

Although Nyswander died in 1998 at the age of 104, her legacy lives on through the annual California Chapter of the Society for Public Health Education Dorothy B. Nyswander Award for Leadership in Health Education.

Photo: Jonathan Eubanks

Helen Wallace: Dedicated to Maternal and Children’s Health

Helen Wallace led Berkeley Public Health’s Maternal and Child Health Program from 1962 until 1980, building it into one of the top-ranked programs in the country.

Wallace laid important groundwork in the field of maternal and child health by fostering collaboration across disciplines at a time when it was rare to do so and she implemented these practices within the school, in research partnerships, and in her prodigious writing. Wallace passed away in 2013 at the age of 99.

Berkeley Public Health launched the Wallace Center for Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health in 2015 with a $13 million endowment from Wallace. The center is a multidisciplinary research and training center that aims to advance the health of parents, adolescents, and children and reduce maternal and child health disparities.

Ruth Huenemann: Founded Berkeley Public Health’s Public Health Nutrition Program

Born on a farm in Iowa in 1910, Ruth Heunemann attended the University of Wisconsin as an undergraduate after several years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. She later received a master’s degree in dietetics from the University of Chicago and a doctoral degree from Harvard.

Huenemann joined the faculty at Berkeley Public Health in 1953, where she founded the school’s public health nutrition program. While at the Berkeley Public Health, Heunemann created the first program that allowed students earning a bachelor’s degree in public health nutrition to also become eligible as registered dietitians. The program she developed became the preeminent center for training applied nutritionists in the US.

She was a standout teacher and also led a landmark study of childhood factors and adult obesity called the Berkeley Longitudinal Nutrition Study.

Joyce Lashof: First Woman Appointed to Lead a State Department of Public Health

Joyce Lashof was the first woman to be appointed director of any state department of public health when she became director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1973. She was also one of the first women to be appointed dean of a professional school at UC Berkley when she became dean of Berkeley Public Health in 1981.

Born in Philadelphia in 1926, Lashof pursued her dream of becoming a physician at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, followed by an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago. While there, she began working with underserved populations in Chicago, eventually becoming director of the Mile Square Health Center.

In 1981, she was named dean of Berkeley Public Health, becoming the first woman to be appointed dean of a professional school at Berkeley, where she was instrumental in the launch of the Berkeley Wellness Letter. She was named president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in 1987 and president of the American Public Health Association in 1991.

Patricia Buffler: Renowned Childhood Cancer Researcher

Patricia Buffler was an internationally esteemed researcher known for her work on some of the world’s largest studies on childhood leukemia and environmental health.

Buffler earned her MPH in 1965 and a PhD in epidemiology in 1973, both at Berkeley Public Health. After years of teaching at the University of Texas, Buffler began a distinguished 22-year tenure teaching career at UC Berkeley in 1991, when she joined the faculty as professor of epidemiology and dean of the School of Public Health

When Buffler passed away in 2013, she was the Kenneth and Marjorie Kaiser Chair in Cancer Epidemiology and was leading several large research programs related to childhood leukemia and other childhood cancers, including the California Childhood Leukemia Study. This study, which Buffler launched in 1995, investigated the relationship between diet, genes, infections, and environmental exposures and the development of leukemia. With over 1,300 cases of childhood leukemia included, the study was one of the largest in the world, with an unparalleled breadth of exposure and genetic data.

Meredith Minkler: Pioneer in Community-Based Participatory Research

Meredith Minkler received both her MPH (1970) and doctorate (1975) from Berkeley Public Health and went on to become one of the pioneers of community-based participatory research (CBPR), a collaborative approach to research that equitably involves all partners’ perspectives and inputs. She co-edited the first major textbook on CBPR and has more than 35 years’ experience in developing and implementing community partnerships, community organizing, and CBPR to study and address health equity and social justice issues like criminal justice reform and food insecurity.

Minkler is the founding director of Berkeley Public Health’s Center on Aging, former chair of the schoolwide DrPH Program, and a recipient of the Distinguished Career Award from the American Public Health Association.

She is currently a professor emerita at Berkeley Public Health and a Fulbright Specialist.

Judith Heumann: Disability Rights Advocate

Judith Heumann’s work as an advocate for Americans with disabilities led to the mainstreaming of disability rights advocacy and to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Born in 1947, Heumann contracted polio as a baby and subsequently used a wheelchair. She became an activist after the New York City board of education rejected her application for a teaching license, calling her a fire hazard because of her wheelchair usage. She sued and won, becoming the first wheelchair user to teach in New York public schools.

She went on to earn an MS from Berkeley Public Health in 1975 and become the deputy director for Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living from 1975 to 1982. She was an early adopter of the Independent Living Movement. In 1977, Heumann helped organize the legendary 28-day 504 Sit-In in front of San Francisco’s federal building to protest lack of follow-through for federal civil rights legislation for disabled people. She eventually became assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services under President Bill Clinton and later special advisor on international disability rights under President Barack Obama.

She was named one of TIME magazine’s “100 Women of the Year” in 2020.

Photo: Martin Adolfsson

Marion Nestle: Changed How We Think About Food

Berkeley Public Health graduate Marion Nestle is one of the country’s best-known nutrition experts. Forbes named her one of the seven most powerful foodies in the world and she has appeared in at least eight food documentaries and written ten books. Her first book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, changed the way Americans think and talk about food. In 2011, Berkeley Public Health named her a Public Health Hero.

Nestle received both an MPH and a PhD in molecular biology from UC Berkeley. She taught nutrition and was an associate dean for human biology at UCSF from 1976-1986; for the following two years, she was senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services and editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Nutrition and Health.

She became chair of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU in 1988 and co-founded the Food Studies program there in 1996.

Mary Pittman: Nonprofit Leader Fighting to Address Health Inequities

Mary A. Pittman is nationally recognized leader in improving community health—with a DrPH from Berkeley Public Health—and the president and CEO of president and chief executive officer of the Public Health Institute (PHI),  where she mobilizes health professionals to impact national and global public policy.

Before joining PHI, Pittman served as the president and CEO of the California Association of Public Hospitals and a director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Julie Gerberding: At the Helm of the CDC During Multiple Public Health Threats

Julie Gerberding guided the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through an era of multiple public health threats and rapid expansion. In 2005, TIME magazine named her as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” for her work with the CDC. 

Gerberding received an MD from Case Western University 1981, followed by an MPH from Berkeley Public Health in 1990. After working on the frontlines of HIV at UCSF, she went on to become the first female director of the CDC. During her tenure there, she not only developed patient safety initiatives and other disease prevention programs but also helped lead the national response to a number of public health emergencies, including the anthrax bioterrorism threats of 2001 as well as SARS, West Nile virus, monkeypox, and Hurricane Katrina.

Currently, she is executive vice president of pharmaceutical company Merck, where she has worked to improve population health.

Jane Garcia: Trailblazer for Culturally Appropriate Clinical Care

Since 1983, Berkeley Public Health graduate Jane Garcia has been the executive director of Oakland’s La Clínica de La Raza, one of California’s largest community health centers serving multilingual and multicultural populations. About 65% of its patients are Latino, many of whom are immigrants.

In her 34 years as CEO, Ms. Garcia has grown La Clínica from a $2 million project to an over $110 million dollar organization, employing more than 1,000 people. She also took California to court—and won—in 1997 over the state’s attempt to defund prenatal care for unauthorized immigrant women.

Garcia has received many awards, including the YMCA Martin Luther King, Jr., Leadership Prize for Human Dignity and Brotherhood, the San Francisco Foundation’s Community Leadership Award, and the 2019 Alumna of the Year Award from Berkeley Public Health.

Cheri Pies: Brought Attention to the Social Determinants of Health

Cheri A. Pies, currently clinical professor emerita of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health at Berkeley Public Health, has long worked to address the ways in which social and economic disparities and inequities influence birth outcomes and generational health across the life course.

She is the former director of UC Berkeley’s Center of Excellence in Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health and principal investigator of the Best Babies Zone Initiative, an approach to reducing infant mortality through community-driven transformation. Previously, Pies was director of Family, Maternal, and Child Health Programs for the Contra Costa County Health Services Department for 14 years, where she oversaw a broad range of programs, projects, and staff designed to improve and promote the health of women, children, adolescents, and families at the local level. Pies received her MSW from Boston University and both her MPH and DrPH from Berkeley Public Health.

Sue Desmond-Hellmann: Advanced Global Public Health

Berkeley Public Health graduate Sue Desmond-Hellmann spent more than five years as chief executive officer at the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation, where she led the foundation’s efforts to reduce inequity and ensure that every person in the world has the opportunity to live a healthy, productive life. Desmond-Hellmann was previously Chancellor of UCSF, the first woman to hold that position, and had worked at the pharmaceutical firm Genentech—where she helped develop some of the first gene-targeted cancer drugs, Avastin and Herceptin.

Desmond-Hellmann is board-certified in internal medicine and medical oncology and completed her clinical training at UCSF. She earned her MPH from Berkeley Public Health, where she began planning a research project on the epidemiology of patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a viral cancer prevalent among AIDS patients. In 2007, Berkeley Public Health awarded her the Distinguished Alumna of the Year Award.

Lynn Barr: Entrepreneur Devoted to Raising the Standard of Health Care in Rural America

Lynn Barr is an influential leader in the movement to improve our nation’s health care systems, especially in rural areas.  She founded Caravan Health In 2014 to help rural healthcare providers deliver better care and transition from a fee-for-service to a value-based model focused on patient outcomes. She remains the company’s executive chair.

While pursuing her master’s degree at Berkeley Public Health (which she received in 2011), Barr developed a $20 million rural hospital loan program and organized the National Rural Accountable Care Organization to help rural hospitals improve patient care and lower costs.

Photo: Michael Priest

Eveline Shen: Reproductive Rights Leader

Eveline Shen graduated from Berkeley Public Health in 1998 with an MPH in Community Health Education and began interning at a small Oakland nonprofit called Asian Pacific Islanders for Reproductive Health. Shen eventually became co-director of the organization, which morphed into Forward Together, for which Shen now acts as executive director. Under Shen’s leadership, Forward Together has become nationally recognized for its leadership within the reproductive justice movement.

Shen was named one of Women’s eNews’ 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, was awarded the 2015 San Francisco Foundation Community Leadership Award, and was awarded the Lani Shaw Award for Courage and Compassion in the Pursuit of Reproductive Justice by the Funders for Reproductive Equity in 2017.

Amani Allen: Reveals How Experiencing Racism Affects Health Outcomes

Amani M. Allen’s large body of work has shown how chronic stress from experiencing day-to-day racism turns into racial differences in health outcomes. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on NPR, CBS, The Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other media outlets. 

“Prolonged elevation [and] circulation of the stress hormones in our bodies can be very toxic and compromise our body’s ability to regulate key biological systems like our cardiovascular system, our inflammatory system, our neuroendocrine system,” Nuru-Jeter told NPR in 2017. “It just gets us really out of whack and leaves us susceptible to a bunch of poor health outcomes.” 

Allen has received numerous awards for teaching excellence, including the singular award for Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring. She received her MPH from the George Washington University and her PhD from Johns Hopkins University. Allen is currently executive associate dean and associate professor of Community Health Sciences and Epidemiology at Berkeley Public Health.