Harrison Spencer obituary

Other lives: Doctor involved in the fight against malaria in Africa who initiated distance learning programmes for health professionals

My colleague Harrison Spencer, who has died aged 71, was dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine between 1996 and 2000. He devoted his life to improving the health of people around the world.

The son and grandson of doctors, he was born in Baltimore, Maryland. After qualifying in medicine from the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore and receiving a master’s in public health from the University of California at Berkeley, he was employed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This was a time when those in the fight against malaria could celebrate considerable success, such as the eradication of disease from southern Europe, but were confronting significant challenges elsewhere, including concerns about the persistence of DDT in the environment and resistance to insecticides and antimalarial medicines.

After an initial posting to El Salvador, Harrison moved to the University of Nairobi, where he founded a new CDC research station. He gained a solid grounding in both the technical and, arguably more importantly, political challenges involved in eradicating malaria. He would later move to the World Health Organisation in Geneva and back to CDC, where he became head of its parasitic diseases branch.

By the early 1990s he was ready for a move to academia and became dean of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans. Later in the 1990s, as dean of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, he led a major expansion in the school’s activities.

His time overseas had convinced him that schools of public health in northern countries would have to reach out to students who would never be able to find the time or resources to come to them. He initiated an ambitious distance learning programme that since its inception has trained more than 8,000 health professionals from more than 130 countries.

Harrison also recognised the need for new approaches to the many complex challenges facing global health, including climate change, mass migration, conflict and political and economic transition. He encouraged the development of research centres that broke down the traditional barriers between disciplines and connected researchers with policymakers.

After London, he returned to Washington to lead the US Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, applying many of the same principles that had been so successful in London. Harrison published more than 100 scientific papers and received many honours.

He was found dead from stab wounds at the home he shared with his family. One of his sons has been charged with his murder. He is survived by his wife, Christine, and two sons.


Martin McKee

The GuardianTramp

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