How to Become an Expert

I have heard that if you wish to be considered an expert on a subject, you first need to write a book about it.  I wrote Disease and Discovery, first published in 1987, not so much because I wanted to be considered an expert, but because I felt a rather urgent need to learn something about public health. 

I found myself a faculty member at what was then the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health (now the Bloomberg School of Public Health), without actually having had any training in the field.  My PhD from Princeton University was in the history and philosophy of science and I had taught premed and pre-nursing students for several years at the State University of New York.  I came to Johns Hopkins to teach in the School of Health Services, founded in 1971.  The school’s purpose was to educate “Health Associates,” mid-level health practitioners, of a type more recently known as physician assistants and nurse practitioners.  The students were wonderful and very committed; many of the men had been medics in Vietnam and many of the women had been nurses and activists in the women’s health movement; they were all ready and eager to make a major contribution to health care delivery

I applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to teach humanities to health care practitioners.  To my delight, the grant was awarded.  Then there was a problem: the School of Health Services – for various complicated reasons – closed down.  I had my grant but no students.  I knew there were already historians teaching in the medical school, so I went a little further down the road to the school of public health and asked if they would be willing to take me in.  They gave a warm welcome, an office, and a telephone.

I remember starting to teach one of my first classes, and asked the students to tell me about public health.  They looked at me and said that was what I was supposed to tell them.  I probably said that this was a test and that they needed to answer the question.

We gradually got used to each other and always had very interesting conversations and discussions.  I was, however, well aware that when my grant ended, the school of public health would have no particular reason to want to keep me.  At that point, in order to make myself useful, I agreed to write a history of the school.  This was originally intended to be in two volumes; I finished the first and then, feeling under great pressure to bring in large grants – not an easy task for a historian – I decided to leave and accept a position where I would be secure, not required to raise money, and actually be paid a salary for my work.  In 1995, I thus became Chief of the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine, at the National Institutes of Health.  I’m still having a grand time in the library and, thanks largely to Disease and Discovery, have become a well-recognized historian of public health, having published several hundred articles, book chapters, and reviews and having edited or co-edited eight  books on the subject.  I am also Contributing Editor in history for the American Journal of Public Health, responsible, with my friend and colleague, Theodore M. Brown, for three historical departments.  I have to agree: if you want to be considered an expert on a subject – first write a book about it!


Elizabeth Fee is the chief historian at the National Library of Medicine. She is the coeditor of AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease, Making Medical History: The Life and Times of Henry E. Sigerist, Women Physicians and the Cultures of Medicine, and many other works. Her latest book, Disease and Discovery: A History of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health is available now.


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