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Remembering public health advocate Harry Snyder

The country lost a leading voice for public health advocacy when Harry Snyder, JD,  a beloved teacher at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, died on February 10, 2023. He was 85.

At the time of his passing  Snyder was advocacy leader-in-residence at the Center for Public Health Practice and Leadership and a lecturer of health policy and management at the school, where he taught courses on health policy advocacy.

When colleagues at Berkeley Public Health learned of his death, one word kept popping up: mensch.

“Harry was a mensch. A fierce mensch who knew we could do better,” said Lori Dorfman, adjunct professor at Berkeley Public Health and director of the public health advocacy organization Berkeley Media Studies Group. She said that in Snyder’s mind, “our thorniest public health problems were puzzles to be solved,  and he knew we could figure them out if we just put our minds to it.

“Knowing was never enough for Harry; we had to do, too,” Dorfman said. “He championed advocacy in public health,  because nothing frustrated him more than knowledge being hidden away in academic journals instead of out in the world brought to bear on policy. He wanted Berkeley Public Health to elevate advocacy to make sure we were doing all we could, not just to study health but to create health. He believed in us.”

Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, wrote, “Harry dedicated his professional life to legislative and consumer advocacy for California’s poor, uninsured, marginalized, and oppressed communities.”

Berkeley Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu said, “He was a beloved teacher, and was passionate about teaching advocacy as a driver for social change.”

Snyder was born in Los Angeles in 1937. He attended USC and then UCLA, where he earned  a  law degree. After a stint in the Peace Corps, during which he lived in India, Samoa, and Nepal, Snyder and his family moved to Mill Valley, California. In the mid-1970s, he became West Coast director of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. During his long tenure there—he retired in 2002—Snyder became known as one of California’s most tenacious and outspoken consumer lobbyists.

“Harry created the toughest law for corporate executive accountability in the nation—requiring California executives to be personally liable for knowledge about defects or dangers in the workplace that they fail to disclose,” Jamie Court wrote in an obituary that appeared on the Consumer Watchdog website. “As the West Coast Director of Consumers Union, Harry shepherded through other landmark changes to protect our access to high quality health care.”

For the next two decades, Snyder taught advocacy at Berkeley Public Health and was also the principal at Cy Pres Funds, where he distributed more than $70 million in fines from class action lawsuits to the appropriate recipients.

“His vision was to help mold brilliant young public health students into fierce and righteous advocates who could make the world a kinder and more equitable place, in particular for those who had been the victims of structural racism and poverty,” said longtime friend and collaborator Tony Iton. “ He worked with several Berkeley Public Health deans to help bring the Academy into the streets and the legislature to translate public health science into equitable and enduring public policy. He was always there for his students and helped support and guide their careers long after they graduated. He was both an idealist and a pragmatist who never gave up on a good fight and never left his opponents feeling disrespected.”

In 2020, Snyder and Iton co-authored Advocacy for Public Health Policy Change: An Urgent Imperative, which Physicians for a National Health Program  called “a treasure trove of guidance on how to push for healthier public policies.”

Snyder is survived by his wife, Vivian C. Snyder, three children, and eight grandchildren.