Obesity expert honored in ceremony at Milken Institute School of Public Health.
By James Irwin
William Dietz was with his wife, Nancy, in Guatemala in the summer of 1969 when he first developed an interest in nutrition. The University of Pennsylvania medical student was running the dispensary at a rural Episcopalian mission and wondered about the prevalent undernutrition he witnessed in the area.
“I was particularly interested in the connection between immune function and undernutrition,” he said. “And I began to think we could use immunologic measures as an index in the degree of undernutrition. In a paper I wrote at the end of that summer, I concluded that it was impossible to separate medical from sociological factors in the origin and treatment of undernutrition and its associated diseases. This was a lesson that I would later apply to obesity.”
Thus began a four-plus decade venture into the fields of obesity, nutrition and physical fitness. Dr. Dietz, who for 15 years served as the director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), joined the George Washington University in March 2014 as the director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness. Last Tuesday, he was formally installed as the inaugural Sumner M. Redstone Chair in a ceremony held at the Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“Dr. Dietz brings invaluable expertise to the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness,” George Washington President Steven Knapp said. “He leads a multidisciplinary effort to find and evaluate innovative ways of addressing the epidemic of obesity through improved nutrition, physical activity and relevant changes in public policy.”
Dr. Dietz’s depth of scholarly accomplishment and his expertise with practical issues in both clinical and field settings were strengths James Marks was looking for when he recruited Dr. Dietz to join the CDC almost 20 years ago. Dr. Marks, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, said his colleague and friend has the visionary leadership to lead the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness.
An expert in the field of childhood obesity, Dr. Dietz’s portfolio includes more than 200 research papers in scientific journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. He was the author of the first study, in 1985, to demonstrate a relationship between television viewing habits and obesity in young children.
“This was before there were smartphones, before there were iPads, before there was an Internet, before personal computers were widely available for children,” Dr. Marks said. “He could see it coming.”
Dr. Knapp, Dr. Goldman, Michael Milken and Dr. Maltzman pose for a photo during the event. (Dave Scavone/For GW Today)
That type of visionary leadership is critical for a center with the ambition and aspirations of the Redstone Center, said Mike Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, who attended on behalf of Sumner Redstone. In a touching moment Tuesday, he emphasized the importance of public health by reflecting on his personal connection with Dr. Dietz. The two were graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania—one in medicine, one in business—at the same time, though they never met as students.
“It’s a large campus. How much more productive my life would have been had I teamed up with Bill back then,” he said. “We concluded years ago that economic progress and productivity are linked to global prevention and wellness. I couldn’t be more excited to finally have this chance to team up with my classmate from 46 years ago.”
Established in 2014, the Redstone Center is currently addressing some of the world’s most pressing public health challenges, particularly those related to child obesity, Interim Provost Forrest Maltzman said.
“The center’s work epitomizes Mr. Redstone’s longstanding commitment to innovation, empowerment and progress, and his vision for a better world,” he said.
Tuesday’s installation of Dr. Dietz is one in a series of landmark moments at the Milken Institute School of Public Health in recent years.
In March 2014, shortly before Dr. Dietz was hired, the university announced it had received three gifts totaling $80 million from the Milken Institute, the Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation and the Milken Family Foundation. That May, GW celebrated the opening of the school’s new building on Washington Circle. In January 2015, Lynn Goldman was formally installed as the Michael and Lori Milken Dean at Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“It is almost hard for me to believe how much we have accomplished,” Dr. Goldman said Tuesday. “Our school has been able to recruit outstanding faculty, support high-caliber students and build an academic and research infrastructure that allows us to continue our drive to be one of the premier schools of public health in the world.”