In memory of Joe Brain

The Countway Library was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dr. Joseph D. Brain on January 29, 2024. Dr. Brain, Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology, Emeritus, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, was -- in addition to teaching and conducting research at the Chan School for over 50 years -- one of the Center for the History of Medicine’s greatest advocates. His leadership and ongoing efforts were foundational to the establishment of our successful public health archives program.

Headshot of Dr. Joseph Brain
Dr. Joseph D. Brain. Courtesy the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In the early 2000s, the Center for the History of Medicine recognized a significant gap in our archival collections. Public health holdings were drastically under-represented, particularly with respect to the Harvard Chan School. To address this, the Center formed a Public Health History Committee, comprised of Harvard Chan faculty and staff, to better communicate these concerns directly to the school and to share their recommendations for a path forward. Dr. Brain, or “Joe” as he preferred to be addressed, was approached by the Center for potential membership on this committee. He had built up a reputation as an unofficial historian of the school; for years he had been offering an hour-long history lecture on public health and the school during orientation week. Joe enthusiastically agreed to serve as the committee's inaugural chair. He became quite fluent in understanding how archives work, and he excelled in communicating between his colleagues and the Center.

Two years later, Joe personally delivered the committee’s recommendations to the deanship of the Harvard Chan School. These included a proposal that the school fund a full-time archivist position, prepare a comprehensive exhibit on the school’s history, and commission a series of portraits of underrepresented minority and women faculty. By 2013, with the school’s centennial serving as further catalyst, all of these recommendations came to fruition – after fierce advocacy by Joe Brain. The Public Health History Committee evolved into a Centennial Committee (still chaired by Joe) and its membership evolved to include executive leadership at the school. It was at this time that Joe played a key role in hiring both a public health historian to investigate the founding of the school and a project archivist to conduct a survey of visual materials and objects on campus and in storage. The project archivist’s survey played a critical role informing future acquisition work, and the historian’s resulting report spawned multiple publications, including “The Birth of Public Health Education” (Hunter DJ, Frenk J. The Birth of Public Health Education. JAMA. 2015;313(11):1105–1106) and the HSPH Centennial Website. With the completion of the Centennial year, Joe advocated for the ongoing funding of a permanent archival program at the school, and for a dedicated archivist.

Our colleague Heather Mumford was hired as the school’s first dedicated full-time archivist in 2014, and with that appointment, Joe immediately turned his attention to ensuring the success of this fledgling program by building connections between the Countway's Center for the History of Medicine, the Harvard Chan School, and his many professional networks. He became a passionate advocate of the archival program, communicating frequently with school leadership through formal reports detailing collection growth and use, current projects, financial gifts, events, and tours. From 2013 to 2020, Joe set aside time each week to meet with Heather and strategize. We were exceptionally grateful when Joe himself generously donated his own records. His collection is vast, and includes numerous objects, such as multiple devices associated with lung physiology research and two plethysmographs (human and dog).

We are extremely grateful to Joe for all that he did to advance our understanding of the evolution of the Harvard Chan School and history of public health research. Our heartfelt condolences to his family.

Note: The majority of the content for this article was derived from the Center's application nominating Joe Brain for the Librarians, Archivists, and Museum Professionals in the History of the Health Sciences's (LAMPHHS) Recognition of Merit, which was awarded to Joe in 2022. The award honors longtime service and/or extraordinary gifts of non-LAMPHHS members to health sciences libraries.