The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health was founded in 1948 with a $13.6 million grant from the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust. The school opened its doors in 1950 as the 13th public health school in the nation.
At first, the school focused on occupational and industrial health and hygiene, mostly to address the public health needs of the industrialized City of Pittsburgh. At that time, Pittsburgh was the world's largest producer of steel. So prominent was Pitt Public Health's research that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration used only Pitt Public Health data to create the first national standards for worker safety and health on the job.
As Pittsburgh's economy changed from heavy industry to service and high-tech industries, with a population shift from blue-collar to white-collar and elderly, Pitt Public Health's focus also changed. Since about 1986, the school has broadened its efforts to include chronic disease and geriatrics. Pitt Public Health now also focuses its research on global health, health equity, and premature mortality.
Research also continues in such traditional Pitt Public Health study areas as infectious disease, workplace and environment problems, strokes and heart disease, and radiation safety.
Pitt Public Health research grants have increased dramatically since the school's founding. From 1948 to 1952, they amounted to roughly $800,000. By 1958, they rose to nearly $2 million. In 1987, they grew to $13 million, and today they are $63 million. Pitt Public Health continuously ranks among the top five in the nation for funding from the National Institutes of Health.
- Pitt Public Health conducted the earliest National Cancer Institute-funded epidemiological studies of steelworkers in the 1950s and their increased risk factor for lung cancer, which led to the first safety standards implemented by OSHA in the early 1970s.
- Pitt was the leader of early trials in the 1950s on immunization showing gamma globulin injection was effective in preventing polio. These trials laid the theoretical groundwork for the subsequent development of the first Salk polio vaccine at the University of Pittsburgh.
- Faculty from Pitt Public Health provided the biostatistical leadership in seminal clinical trials of surgical and systemic treatments for breast cancer which led to adoption of lesser surgery (lumpectomy) and fewer radical mastectomies and improved survival through widespread use of effective chemotherapies and hormonal therapies, such as tamoxifen, for treatment of early stage breast cancer. Recent trials focus on testing genetically targeted therapies
- The concept of gender-based biology in the 1990s, which highlighted the underrepresentation of women in biological studies and shed light on differences in rates of illness, metabolization of medications, and lifestyle-related health issues between men and women, was established at Pitt Public Health.
- The first book to propose using science to assess the value, impact, and outcomes of public health programs, which spurred the Great Society efforts of the mid-1960s, such as Head Start, Model Cities, and various health-planning efforts, was written by Pitt Public Health faculty.
- Pitt Public Health researchers led the study that evaluated the health care provided to uninsured low-income children in southwestern Pennsylvania, which ultimately swayed Congress to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to all 50 states.
- Pitt is home to the Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) Health Research, and the world’s first certificate program geared toward LGBT health, whose studies found that HIV/AIDs risk factors are fueled by other behaviors, such as drug use, violence, child sexual abuse, and mental health issues, such as depression and social stigma.
- Pitt Public Health researchers investigated and recommended global occupational safety initiatives, including methods to detect isocyanates and immune hypersensitivity to them, in response to the 1984 Bhopal, India, gas tragedy that killed between 3,000 and 11,000 people.
- One of the longest-running studies in Pitt history, the Pitt Men’s Study, which was developed in 1983 and continues to this day, and serves as one of the nation’s earliest and most extensive investigations into AIDS, contributing data that has transformed one of the world’s most deadly epidemics into a chronic illness.
- Genetic discoveries and advances that have led to the development of molecular genetics testing that has identified and characterized the cystic fibrosis gene, genes that predispose for primary lymphedema, six new Alzheimer’s genes, three new systemic lupus erythematosus genes, and a new biomarker for genetic defects in tumor cells that are chemo- and radiation resistant, were completed at Pitt Public Health. The school is also home to one of the nation’s oldest genetic counseling programs.
- Pitt Public Health researchers are currently studying the public health implications of the Marcellus Shale industry and its effect on the environment, which will likely inform the health policies of the next decades.