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Edward S. Godfrey, Jr., Founder of the First US Epidemiologic Society

Winkelstein, Warren

doi: 10.1097/EDE.0b013e31816b786d

In 1927, there was no professional society for US epidemiologists. Inspired by the London Epidemiological Society (established in 1850), Edward S. Godfrey, Jr. and Haven Emerson invited 17 public health professionals to a meeting in New York City for the purpose of founding a new society. With the stated purpose of promoting “the study and discussion of epidemiological problems,” this group became the American Epidemiological Society, now in its 82nd year.1

Godfrey's father was a cavalry officer in the Indian Wars, credited in 1876 with rescuing the remnants of Custer's Seventh Cavalry after the massacre at Little Bighorn. Edward Jr. was born 2 years later. His mother died when he was five, and his father took Godfrey on postings from Cuba to the Philippines until sending him, at the age of 8, to be raised by an aunt in Ohio.

Godfrey enrolled at West Point but left to study medicine at the University of Virginia. He developed tuberculosis during his postgraduate training, and moved to the drier climate of the US southwest, where he took a job in Bisbee, Arizona as physician for the Copper Queen Mining Company. His observations of the miserable living and working conditions for miners may have contributed to his broader interest in public health. At age 30 he was appointed Superintendent of Public Health for the Territory of Arizona.

Godfrey joined the New York State Health Department in 1917, becoming Director of Communicable Disease Control and later its Commissioner. Godfrey regarded epidemiology as “… the scientific basis for sound health legislation and administration.” An example is his classic paper on herd immunity in the control of diphtheria. Drawing on extensive data from communities in upstate New York, Godfrey showed that immunizing 50% or more of children 5–19 years of age did not control epidemic diphtheria, but that immunizing 30% of children under 5 was enough to stop the epidemic.2

Godfrey was a founder of the Epidemiology Section of the American Public Health Association, and eventually became president of APHA. He was a recipient of the Sedgwick Memorial Award in 1950. A profile published in the American Journal of Public Health cited his “healthy skepticism” as key to his excellence as an epidemiologist.3 Godfrey died on 13 December 1960 at the age of 82.

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1. Paul JR. An account of the American Epidemiological Society: a retrospective of some fifty years. Yale J Biol Med. 1973;46:1–84.
2. Godfrey ES Jr. Study in the epidemiology of diphtheria in relation to the active immunization of certain age groups. Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1932;22:237–256.
3. Edward S, Godfrey Jr. Am J Public Health Nations Health. 1938;28:1422–1423.
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