Twenty years ago when Margaret Hamburg became New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, her great-aunt Winnie couldn’t believe that, after so much medical training, Hamburg would give up being a “real doctor.” Her family, including her parents who were both physicians, tried to convince Winnie, to no avail, that her then 36-year-old great-niece would be concerned with the health needs of more than 8 million people—the entire city population. But Hamburg, who shared the story on May 26 at Columbia’s Faculty House in a lecture on global health, remained undeterred by her great-aunt’s doubts. Two years ago, Hamburg was named commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and now serves more than 300 million people each day.
|L-R: Stephen Morse, Margaret Hamburg and Matthew Connelly
Hamburg’s lecture was the first of a summer speakers series, “The History and Future of Pandemic Threats and Global Public Health,” which will run weekly through August 11. Other notable speakers include Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Laurie Garrett, senior fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations; and John Lange, Senior Program Officer, Global Health Policy & Advocacy, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
During her talk, Hamburg focused on the role of the FDA in combating global infectious disease. Her own research and work has primed her on this critical issue: She led a program in New York City that drastically reduced cases of tuberculosis, conducted research on HIV/AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and advocated for reforms to improve preparedness against such public health threats as pandemic flu.
“The challenges and emerging disease threats we face are more acute than ever,” said Hamburg. “But so are the opportunities—the opportunities of science and technology, but also brainpower and resources. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge and potential out there, and it is up to us to seize it. But, more importantly, to apply it to the issues that matter most.”
The free, public lectures are part of Columbia’s Hertog Global Strategy Initiative
, a 12-week summer research program that strives to expand the understanding of present and future challenges. The Hertog Global Strategy Initiative invites experts and select graduate and undergraduate students to gather each summer at Columbia for intensive study, independent research, and collaborative writing on a specific critical issue in international affairs. Last year, participants explored “Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of World Power.”
"It was a tremendous boon to our program to have Peggy Hamburg kick off the lecture series and meet with our students—the future historians, policy makers, and public health practitioners who will shape global public health in the 21st century," said Matthew Connelly
, professor of history and director of the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative. Connelly is teaching the 12-week program in collaboration with Stephen Morse
, professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health
In her lecture, Hamburg discussed a range of efforts involving the FDA over the years to battle infectious diseases: fighting botulism in canned foods in the 1920s, producing penicillin during World War II, and reforming new drug approval in response to the AIDS epidemic. In fact, she credited changes initiated in the agency’s response to the AIDS epidemic with helping the FDA respond quickly, collaborate broadly, and think creatively in response to the U.S. H1N1 flu outbreak.
Hamburg also detailed both the reactive role the FDA plays—approving treatment and preventive vaccines—as well as the significant proactive role the agency plays in preparing to respond to future crises. Looking to the future, she emphasized the need for greater and more effective collaboration among government agencies, corporations, and research institutions. She called for “creative partnerships and a commitment to truly interdisciplinary ideas.”
Specifically addressing the students in attendance from the Hertog Global Strategy Initiative, Hamburg, who once taught at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, urged their participation in her vision for a more collaborative effort to fight infectious disease.
“You, the leaders of tomorrow, have the chance to fulfill that vision. You can come together and play your part in creating a public health paradigm truly equipped for our modern world.”