Remembering Joe Brain, a champion for public health

Dr. Joseph Brain, Emeritus Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health and Lown Institute Board Member

Dr. Joseph Brain, an innovative scientist, generous teacher, and devoted friend to Dr. Bernard Lown, passed away in late January 2024. Dr. Brain was a brilliant researcher in lung biology and taught at the Harvard School of Public Health for more than 50 years, mentoring hundreds of students and creating a supportive culture within the department with his kindness and warmth. In his role on the Lown Institute board for 12 years, he was dedicated to preserving Dr. Lown’s legacy and vision. He will be greatly missed.

“Joe helped shape the Lown Institute’s unique synthesis of clinical and public health perspectives that continue to power our mission of promoting social responsibility in American health care.”

Dr. Vikas Saini, president of the Lown Institute

Before retiring in 2022, Joe was the Cecil K. and Philip Drinker Professor of Environmental Physiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, and chaired the Department of Environmental Health from 1990 to 2005. He conducted groundbreaking research in lung biology, including studies on responses to inhaled microbes, prevention of environmental lung disease, and health consequences of metal mining. The Joseph D. Brain Fellowship Fund in Environmental Health was recently established to support environmental health scholars at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Joe was well-known in the public health community, not just for his scientific achievements but for his generosity, warmth, and collaborative spirit. “The first time we met, he greeted me as if we were family members,” said Lown Institute board member David Bor. 

Joe taught the course, “The Human Organism” at Harvard for more than 40 years, which offered undergraduates a new perspective on public health that connected health, social sciences, and current events. “Whether you feel well or if you get certain diseases, it’s a huge part of our life …I really want people to understand the determinants of health: of their own individual health, of the people of the United States, of global health,” he told the Harvard Crimson, after delivering his final class lecture in 2013. 

As a devoted friend and colleague to Dr. Bernard Lown and a Lown Institute board member for 12 years, Joe was committed to honoring Dr. Lown’s legacy. He took the lead on bringing the archive of Dr. Lown’s papers to the Harvard Medical School library, and was very involved in the Lown Scholars program. Through his advocacy, Harvard’s Center for the History of Medicine built an archive dedicated to the history of the Harvard School of Public Health, including a full-time archivist position. For his leadership, Joe received a Librarians, Archivists, and Museum Professionals in the History of the Health Sciences’s (LAMPHHS) Recognition of Merit in 2022.

“Joe was a big champion of the Lown Institute and of Dr. Lown and his legacy. The Lown Institute owes him a debt of gratitude for all he has done.”

Nassib Chamoun