History of the Department








In 1903 the Wisconsin State Legislature established a “hygienic laboratory to provide benefits from the University’s scientific capabilities and promote public health”. The melding of science with public health paralleled the development of academic medical centers pioneered at Johns Hopkins and championed by Abraham Flexner, in which the education and clinical training of physicians would be built upon a scientific foundation.

Alfred S. Evans joined the UW medicine faculty in 1952 from Yale, where he trained in infectious diseases and the evolving field of respiratory virology. Upon returning from sabbatical leave in 1959 – in which he trained in biostatistics and epidemiology and earned an MPH degree at the University of Michigan – Evans was appointed Chair of the newly constituted Department of Preventive Medicine (now the Department of Population Health Sciences).

The initial research thrust of the Department was in the epidemiology of infectious diseases. Evans was among the first to develop and employ an effective computer program for a public health laboratory to assist in epidemiological studies. In 1966, Evans returned to Yale to become the Director of the World Health Organization Regional Serum Reference Bank with a named professorship in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. In 1968 John Rankin was recruited from his position as Professor of Medicine and head of the Pulmonary Disease Section in the Department of Medicine to serve as the new Chair. Rankin’s research interest at UW was in occupationally-related pulmonary disease.

Rankin’s vision for the Department of Preventive Medicine included interdisciplinary integration of biology, medicine, epidemiology, and health policy. He began development of a health services research/administration program that led in 1972 to the initiation of a Master of Arts (MA) degree program in Health Services Administration jointly with the Business School.

In 1978, based on the recruitment of additional epidemiology and biostatistics faculty and their attendant research programs, a Master of Science (MS) degree program in Epidemiology began. The program emphasized epidemiologic research methods and required a thesis for the degree. In 1979, as an outgrowth of the Health Services Administration Program, a residential MS degree program in Administrative Medicine for physicians and other clinician managers was begun. The program was later reorganized into an innovative non-residential, distance-learning format that enabled the training of mid-career clinicians nationwide and the campus-based program was discontinued.

Under Rankin’s leadership, the Department grew to reflect his and the faculty’s diverse interests. It soon included not only the “laboratorians” at the State Laboratory of Hygiene, but also pulmonary physiologists, occupational medicine physicians, health care administrators, and epidemiologists. Rankin fostered strong links to the State of Wisconsin Departments of Health and Family Services that last to this date.

Upon John Rankin’s untimely death in 1981, Donn D’Alessio was appointed Chair. D’Alessio had been Vice-Chair of the Department, Director of the Epidemiology Graduate Program, and a member of the Infectious Disease Section of the Department of Medicine. With this change in leadership, the emphasis shifted to enlarging the faculty numbers in epidemiology, biostatistics, and health services research, and to focus research and training in those areas.

The mid-1980s saw a number of changes in the Department’s teaching programs. Although the Department had three different masters programs, there was no formal doctoral program. After a prolonged planning effort, a unique MS/PhD program was developed that combined core training in epidemiologic, biostatistical, and health services research methodology prior to students completing an emphasis in one of these areas. The proposal for this new integrated degree program was approved by the Graduate School and an MS/PhD degree program in Population Health was initiated in March 1997.

During the 1980s and continuing to the present, the Department has had active research programs and consistently ranked in the upper echelon among the school’s departments in total extramural grant funds obtained as well as in extramural grant dollars per faculty member.

D’Alessio retired in 2000 having served nineteen years as Chair. John Mullahy served as Interim Chair of the Department while a national search was conducted to find a permanent Chair. During Mullahy’s tenure, the Department officially changed its name to the Department of Population Health Sciences in July 2001.

As we entered the new millennium, under Dean Philip Farrell’s initiative, the Medical School was set on a course for embracing the public health mission and transforming itself to a School of Medicine and Public Health. Several faculty from the Department worked closely with Dean Farrell on major public health efforts, including the development of plans for the Wisconsin Partnership Program (created from interest income on a $300 million gift from Blue Cross Blue Shield), a new Master of Public Health Program, and changing of the name of the Medical School to the first in the nation “School of Medicine and Public Health” (SMPH). The recruitment of a new Departmental Chair was part of the vision and planning for this eventuality.

After a successful national search, F. Javier Nieto, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, was recruited as the new Department Chair, arriving in Madison in January 2002. With his arrival, a combination of meeting standing needs and the new Chair’s recruitment package initiated a wave of faculty hiring and new initiatives, including priorities in hiring in infectious diseases, behavioral sciences, non-communicable disease epidemiology, health services research, health outcomes research, health economics, and health policy. Dr. Nieto resigned in September 2016 to take a position as the Dean of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

At this time, Maureen S. Durkin, Professor of Population Health Sciences in the Department, stepped up to lead as Interim Chair. She was appointed as the new Department Chair in 2017.

In the Nieto era, the breadth and scope of research and extramurally funded programs greatly expanded. Department faculty and staff were instrumental in the successful effort in 2007 to win an NIH Clinical and Translational Sciences Award (CTSA) worth over $40 million and the subsequent creation of the UW Institute for Clinical and Translational Research (UW-ICTR), with matching funds provided by the Wisconsin Partnership Program.

Nieto led a team of faculty who successfully obtained a grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program to plan for and then initiate the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW). Modeled after the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), SHOW was launched in June 2008 as the only such survey in the nation with a state focus designed to help improve health in Wisconsin and throughout the world. As of January 2016, the growing SHOW cohort includes over 5,150 adults and children. It is designed to: conduct annual health surveys of Wisconsin residents and communities; conduct longitudinal follow-up of survey participants; and enable community-specific and community-driven ancillary studies. SHOW is the first statewide research survey of its kind to measure information on critical health conditions in Wisconsin. The data that SHOW collects is shared with leaders, organizations, and researchers who use it to improve health in the state. Findings from SHOW present a comprehensive picture of the health of Wisconsin residents, helping to identify needs and target resources where they are most needed.

The Population Health Institute has been a component of the Department in various organizational forms since 1984, adopting its current name and structure as the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute in 2005. The Institute’s work is led by a team of experts well-recognized in their fields and is guided by an active Advisory Board of state-level policy and practice leaders and an Executive Committee of faculty. The mission of the Institute is Translating Research for Policy and Practice. The UW Population Health Institute advances health and well-being for all by developing and evaluating interventions and promoting evidence-based approaches to policy and practice at the local, state, and national levels. The Institute works across the full spectrum of factors that contribute to health. The major program areas in the Institute are: Evaluation Research, Health Policy, and Mobilizing Action Toward Community Health (MATCH). One of the larger programs in MATCH is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and is called County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, which is “building a culture of health, county by county.”

The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort (WSC) is an ongoing longitudinal study of the causes consequences and natural history of sleep disorders, particularly sleep apnea, now in its 21st year. The WSC uses overnight in-laboratory sleep studies (in-patient studies at ICTR’s CTRC) conducted with a baseline sample of 1500 Wisconsin state employees, assessed at four year intervals.

The Epidemiology of Hearing Loss Study (EHLS) is an ongoing longitudinal, population-based cohort study of age-related sensory disorders. Residents of Beaver Dam, WI were initially examined in 1993 and are reexamined about every five years. The EHLS measures various aspects of hearing, olfactory, cognitive, and cardiovascular health. This information is used alongside knowledge gained from the Beaver Dam Offspring Study to determine risk factors and possible interventions for age-related sensory disorders.

The Beaver Dam Offspring Study (BOSS) is an ongoing longitudinal, population-based cohort study that examines the adult children of participants in the Epidemiology of Hearing Loss Study (EHLS). BOSS commenced in 2004 and measures hearing, vision, olfactory, cognitive, and cardiovascular health every five years. Information gathered will be used in conjunction with EHLS data to determine risk factors and potential interventions for age-related sensory disorders, and to determine if the risk of sensory decline has changed in more recent generations. Findings will be used to help predict future health care needs in the United States.

The Wisconsin Surveillance of Autism and other Developmental Disabilities System (WISADDS) was established in 2003 as an ADDM Network site in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and investigators from the Waisman Center and Department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. WISADDS tracks the number of 8-year-olds with ASD and cerebral palsy in southeastern Wisconsin. This program contributes information on the characteristics of children with ASD and on factors that put children at risk for this condition. WISADDS data can be used to promote early identification, plan for training and service needs, guide research, and inform policy so that children and families in our community get the help they need.

The Health Innovation Program (HIP) was created in 2006 as a joint effort between the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and local healthcare organizations to increase partnerships between researchers and healthcare organizations to improve patient care and outcomes. The goal of HIP is to improve healthcare delivery and population health across the state and nation through health systems research that partners University of Wisconsin faculty with healthcare and community organizations. HIP supports innovation in healthcare practice by providing data resources that support both high-quality research and evidence-based decision making. It also facilitates direct links between University of Wisconsin researchers and partnering healthcare organizations, as well as the development and analysis of healthcare interventions to improve quality of care. HIP sponsors a website called HIPxChange, which contains tools and materials for evidence-based health system change that are available for free to the public. By supporting both research and improvement goals, HIP seeks to reduce the barriers to creating and using evidence to improve healthcare for patients across the State of Wisconsin and the nation.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars Program at the University of Wisconsin offered a two-year postdoctoral experience designed to meet the following goals: to provide scholars with an understanding of population health that is broad and integrative; to insure that scholars understand how to translate new population health knowledge into policy and practice; to provide scholars with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to become leaders in the emerging field of population health; and to contribute to the understanding of population health concepts at the university, state, national, and global levels. The program ran from 2003 to 2016, due to a decision in February 2014 to “sunset” the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program.

An ongoing NIH-funded predoctoral training program, titled “Mental Health: Economics and Outcomes,” is in its 32nd year, with a renewal application to continue the program another five years currently pending. It is designed to train the next generation of scholars in these areas by providing an academic experience that is both broad (across the core discipline of economics) and deep (within mental health economics and outcomes research, and in the methodologies of economic analysis).

The Wisconsin Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Program (BCERP) was chosen by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as one of only eight sites around the nation to study key periods (“windows”) in a woman’s life in relation to breast cancer. These “windows” may be times when women need to take special care to avoid exposure to environmental chemicals, for example, so that her risk of breast cancer is not increased later in life. BCERP is a collaboration between the Carbone Cancer Center in the School of Medicine and Public Health and Department of Population Health Sciences.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Global Health Institute (GHI) utilizes the full breadth and depth of campus expertise to tackle today’s pressing global health problems and educate a new cadre of global health scholars.  The Global Health Institute is committed to collaboration across campus, Wisconsin, and the world. With 21 schools, colleges and institutes located on a central campus, UW-Madison is uniquely positioned to improve health and well-being holistically. GHI fosters genuine interdisciplinary partnerships between researchers, students, and communities, looking at today’s problems from multiple perspectives. The Certificate in Global Health program is based in the Department of Population Health Sciences and is administered by the campus-wide Global Health Institute. The certificate is designed to assist traditional and non-traditional students with interests in global health.


MS/PhD in Population Health and Epidemiology

The nature of the graduate program has also evolved to reflect the growth of the Department. In 2001, the Population Health MS/PhD Program became an integral component of the newly named Department of Population Health Sciences, formally Preventive Medicine, which has the goal of understanding, preserving, and improving the health of human populations and individuals. Students enter the Program with strong academic credentials and prepare for careers in public health research, service, and teaching. In 2007, the Department completed the approval process for granting an emphasis on Epidemiology that is noted on the transcript and a concentration in Clinical Research was added to the existing concentrations in Epidemiology and Health Services Research. In 2008, a fourth concentration was added in Social and Behavioral Health Sciences. In 2013-2014 an Epidemiology MS and PhD Program was begun.

Since 2004, classroom space for the program has expanded greatly due to the opening of the Health Sciences Learning Center (HSLC). Approximately 90 percent of PHS classes and seminars, including the Department’s Monday Seminar Series, are now held in HSLC classrooms and lecture halls. In addition, one classroom in the WARF Building near the Departmental offices was upgraded in 2015, with funding from the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) and is used extensively for PHS classroom instruction.

Our MS/PhD Program in Population Health is unique in two respects: (1) its placement within the only integrated School of Medicine and Public Health in the county, rather than in a school of public health; and (2) its integrated curriculum that provides all students with training in health services research, epidemiology, and biostatistics, rather than focusing on just one of these.

In Fall 2021, there were 18 MS and 27 PhD students enrolled in the Population Health and Epidemiology Programs.


Master of Public Health (MPH) Program

The MPH Program was developed in 2005 to foster the expansion and enhancement of a competent public health workforce that is able to advance the well-being of the citizens of Wisconsin and beyond. The MPH Program has been accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health (CEPH) since 2009.

The interdisciplinary nature of the MPH degree readily lends itself to combined degree efforts, currently offering five dual degree options which allow students to expand their primary degree focus and gain public health knowledge and skills, as well as five certificates available to enhance students’ educational experiences and allow them to specialize.

With a focus on service learning, the MPH Program builds on the “Wisconsin Idea,” a century-old aspiration that the benefits of the University extend beyond the classroom to populations broadly. The MPH Program integrates public health practitioners and contemporary public health issues facing Wisconsin’s communities into its teaching, research, and service activities.

In 2018 the Administrative home of the MPH Program was moved from Population Health Sciences to Academic Affairs.


Graduate/ Professional Certificate in Global Health

This 9-credit certificate program is open to all UW-Madison graduate students and students in professional programs, including medicine, pharmacy and veterinary medicine. It is also available to community members who want to know more and contribute to global health. The program includes a field course experience, including faculty-led courses in Thailand, Uganda and Ecuador.

The certificate is offered through the Global Health Institute (GHI) and the Departments of Population Health Sciences and Academic Affairs. An overview of the program can be found in the 2019-2020 Graduate Guide here, and a detailed description of the certificate and the application form can be found on the GHI website.


Preventive Medicine Residency

The Preventive Medicine Residency trains physician leaders in the practice of public health and population medicine to improve health through careers in areas such as local, state or federal health agencies, health care systems and community-based health organizations. During this two-year program, residents gain hands-on experience in applied public health and population medicine through various practicum and clinical rotations, including at state and local public health departments, accountable care organizations, community health clinics and large hospital systems. More information can be found on the Preventive Medicine Residency website.

With significant anchoring in interdisciplinary partnerships across campus and the state, the Department of Population Health Sciences continues to be a pivotal force in the transformation of the School of Medicine to a School of Medicine and Public Health. This process of interdisciplinary transformation is likely to continue for many years. The role of the Department in this transformation is multi-faceted and includes: (1) supporting innovative and collaborative research, including population, basic, and clinical sciences; (2) continuing the growth and integration of graduate and professional programs; (3) contributing to both UW undergraduate programs and medical school curriculum, potentially including the development of new undergraduate public health certificates; and (4) developing partnerships and collaborations with researchers, clinicians, communities, and institutions to improve understanding of health and translate population health research findings into policy and practice.

The need for research and training in population health sciences has never been greater. The Department is well-positioned to help meet this need into the future.

The Evolution of the Department of Population Health Sciences, Wisconsin Medical Journal 2009