McGill’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health was founded in 1964 and celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014-2015. During its more than half-century existence, the Department has established itself as a world leader in education and research.
Although there was a professor of public health at McGill as early as the end of the 19th Century it was not until the arrival of Dr. J. Corbett McDonald in 1964 that a formal Department of Epidemiology and Health was created. Graduate degrees in Epidemiology and Medical Statistics began being offered a few years later.
Starting shortly after 1964, the Department recruited its first faculty members and created the MSc and PhD degrees in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. After interims by Dr. Frank Mount and Dr. Sidney Lee in 1973-74, Dr. McDonald was succeeded by Dr. Robert Oseasohn in 1976 and, after an interim by Dr. Stanley Shapiro in 1983-84, by Dr. Walter O. Spitzer. In 1974, Dr. Graham Gibbs was appointed Founding Director of the Institute of Occupational Health and Safety which was originally located in Mont St-Hilaire and linked to the Faculties of Graduate Studies, Engineering and Medicine. The Institute offered short courses, a Diploma in Occupational Hygiene, consultation services and conducted research on a wide range of occupational health problems. In 1981, Dr. McDonald returned to McGill as Director of the Institute and was succeeded in 1983 by Dr. Gilles Thériault. Dr. Thériault led the transformation of the Institute into a School of Occupational Health, which then moved to the downtown campus of McGill.
The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the rapid growth of clinical epidemiology, cancer epidemiology, health services research and clinical trials at McGill. In Occupational Health, work on asbestos and other mineral fibers continued as well as research on bladder cancer in aluminum smelter workers and on the health effects of electro-magnetic field in Hydro workers. Many of the McGill teaching hospitals created clinical epidemiology units which became the home of several of the Department’s faculty members as well as that of clinical associate members. During the same two decades, major changes in the health care system and in the public health system were taking place in the province of Quebec and in Canada. The Department of Community Health of the Montreal General Hospital, created in 1974, housed the clinical public health faculty members of the Department and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada accredited medical specialty training program in Public Health and Preventive Medicine.
In the 1990s pharmacoepidemiology, clinical epidemiology and health services continued to thrive as Dr. J.C. Bailar III, Dr. T. Wolfson and Dr. A. Lippman (as interim co-chairs) led the Department. In 1996, the School of Occupational Health was merged with the Department to create a new Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health and Dr. Gilles Thériault became the chairman of the new “joint” Department. After an interim by Dr. J. Hanley, he was succeeded in 2001 by Dr. Rebecca Fuhrer, a mental health researcher recruited from University College London. Dr. Fuhrer remained chair for slightly more than 11 years and undertook one of the most ambitious recruitment efforts the Department has seen, which expanded and transformed it into the leader in public and population health research that it is today while maintaining and enhancing its enviable standing in clinical epidemiology, biostatistics and causal inference research. In 2007, the Department created separate degree programs in biostatistics (MSc and PhD) in addition to its well-established MSc and PhD in epidemiology.
Dr. Gilles Paradis succeeded Dr. Fuhrer in 2012. Under Dr. Paradis’ leadership, the Department was instrumental in the proposal for a School of Population and Global Health, which came into being in 2019, housing the Department and three other units. The Department also created a new MScPH degree in Public Health which, although recent, already attracts outstanding graduate students. This new degree led to further recruitment in Public Health Sciences. Most recently, the Department developed a number of options within existing degrees in Epidemiology, focused on pharmacoepidemiology, global health, population dynamics, and environmental and global health. In 2019 Dr. Tim Evans was installed as inaugural Director of the School of Population and Global Health, which will include the Department. In 2020, Dr. Robert Platt became interim Chair of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health.
Photo credit: McGill University Archives