Activist Erin Brockovich and Former Institute Director Kenneth Olden Receive Richmond Awards for Their Promotion of Environmental Health
For immediate release: October 18, 2005
Boston, MA—Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has awarded its highest honor for the protection of vulnerable populations and the promotion of public health to Kenneth Olden, former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and to environmental activist Erin Brockovich-Ellis.
The award recognizes those who carry forth the vision of former U.S. Surgeon General and Harvard emeritus professor Julius B. Richmond, who provided innovative leadership to protect vulnerable populations, children, and all Americans. He issued the momentous Report on Tobacco that changed US policies, set targets for the health of the American public with Healthy People 2000 and was the first national director of the Head Start Program.
Said HSPH Dean Barry R. Bloom: “Ken Olden and Erin Brockovich-Ellis, each in their own way, have advocated for the environmental health of individuals who lacked voices that could be heard. We have established, with the Richmond Award, a tradition of acknowledging the critical roles in the public health arena of a wide variety of actors – from scientists to advocates, attorneys to educators, political leaders and citizens. Today’s honorees join a long line of individuals who have served this role and who have insisted on an expectation and right, in the words of the WHO Constitution, “to the highest attainable standard of health.”
“These critical roles are not without their attendant scientific controversies,” Bloom continued. “There are always areas of causal uncertainty that take a long time to resolve, but there is often also an urgency to prevent harm and protect the health of people. The impetus from citizens and communities is necessary both to expose health problems and eventually to solve them.”
Appointed director of NIEHS in 1991, Dr. Kenneth Olden was the first African American to head one of the institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He was among the first to make the case that human health and chronic disease are the result of gene-environment interactions. Under his leadership, the NIEHS research portfolio broadened from primarily basic biology to include significant large-scale human studies seeking to find both environmental and genetic clues to disease. And he early recognized the power that delineating the human genome offered to research to enable the study of the mechanisms by which environmental agents alter biological functions.
Furthermore, Dr. Olden put great emphasis on linking community groups with resources at research institutions, recognizing that local communities can have the ability to identify environmental health problems but often lack the means and research expertise to effectively document and resolve these problems. In this context, he was also an advocate and pioneer in elevating health disparities to the national agenda.
Erin Brockovich-Ellis began her environmental health advocacy on behalf of the residents of Hinkley, California. Hired as a file clerk at the law firm of Masry & Vititoe, she was organizing papers in a pro bono real-estate case when she unexpectedly found medical records in the files. Further research and interviews with hundreds of Hinkley residents surfaced a variety of health problems and evidence that the residents had been exposed to toxic metals through leaks into the water supply from a neighboring utility. This discovery resulted in one of the largest direct action lawsuits of its kind, ending in a settlement of $333 million in damages by Pacific Gas and Electric Company to more than 600 Hinkley residents. Brockovich-Ellis’s experience was highlighted in the Academy Award-winning motion picture Erin Brockovich starring Julia Roberts.
Since then Brockovich-Ellis has helped raise public awareness of environmental health issues and remains involved in using the law to pursue protection of the human environment.
Previous Richmond winners have included the State Attorneys General who successfully held major tobacco companies accountable for widespread disease and death to reach the Master Settlement Agreement of 1998; NBC’s Today anchor Katie Couric for her colon cancer prevention advocacy; Dr. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and Senator Edward M. Kennedy for his long health advocacy in the US Congress. The recipient list also includes scientists who have been influential in altering policies relating to tobacco and violence.
Past Recipients of the Julius B. Richmond Award
Former Mississippi Attorney General
Washington Attorney General
Former Massachusetts Attorney General
President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
Vincent L. Gregory Professor of Cancer Prevention at HSPH
NBC Today Show and Colorectal Cancer Screening Advocate
Senator Edward M. Kennedy
Dr. Marian Wright Edelman
Founder of the Children's Defense Fund
Dr. David A. Hamburg
Co-chair, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict
(1994-1999) and President Emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation
The late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere
Elder statesman and President of Tanzania (1962-1985)
Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders
Former U.S. Surgeon General
Former Secretary of Health and Human Services
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