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Milton J. Rosenau, M.D.

Few public health issues are more public than food safety, which can involve health officials, farmers, manufacturers, and consumers. Milton J. Rosenau played a crucial role in the long, contentious campaign to make milk supplies pure and safe in the United States. As researcher, health official, and educator, Rosenau put medical science to work in the service of preventive medicine and public health.

Rosenau was born in Philadelphia on January 1, 1869, and received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1889. In 1890, he joined the United States Marine Hospital Service (MHS). He served as quarantine officer in San Francisco from 1895-1898 and in Cuba in 1898. During 1899-1909, he directed the MHS Hygienic Laboratory, transforming a one-person operation into a bustling institution with divisions in bacteriology, chemistry, pathology, pharmacology, zoology, and biology. Rosenau conducted his most important medical research during his 10 years at the Hygienic Laboratory, publishing many articles and books, including The Milk Question (1912) and Preventive Medicine and Hygiene (1913), which quickly became the most influential textbook on the subject.

From early in his career, campaigns to reduce milkborne diseases occupied Rosenau's attention. As he stated in his textbook, "Next to water purification, pasteurization is the most important single preventive measure in the field of sanitation." A Public Health Service study in 1909 reported that 500 outbreaks of milkborne diseases had occurred during 1880-1907. By 1900, increasing numbers of children drank pasteurized milk, but raw milk remained the norm partly because the high-temperature process then in use imparted a "cooked milk" taste. In 1906, Rosenau established that low temperature, slow pasteurization (140 F [60 C] for 20 minutes) killed pathogens without spoiling the taste, thus eliminating a key obstacle to public acceptance of pasteurized milk. However, securing a safe milk supply nationwide took another generation. By 1936, pasteurized, certified milk was the standard in most large cities, although over half of all milk in the United States was still consumed raw.

In 1913, Rosenau became a Harvard University Medical School professor and a co-founder of the Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology School for Health Officers. When Harvard established a school of public health in 1922, Rosenau directed its epidemiology program until 1935. In 1936, he moved to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to help establish its public health school (1940), where he served as dean until his death in 1946.

Rosenau was a dedicated teacher and advocate for improved training in preventive medicine, but he is better remembered for his textbook than his pioneering epidemiologic work. This is as he expected: "We find monuments erected to heroes who have won wars, but we find none commemorating anyone's preventing a war. The same is true with epidemics."

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