The Evolution of Public Health Law Research

By: Scott Burris, JD

Law has been used to protect and promote public health from the early days of European colonization of North America. Quarantine statutes and orders are reported from the mid-17th century. The 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, where our office is based, inspired the federal government’s first public health statute, authorizing relocation of the capital in the event of an outbreak.

By the mid-19th century, sanitarians like Boston’s own Lemuel Shattuck were articulating the idea that a considerable proportion of death and illness was preventable, and arguing that it was moral, feasible, and economical for the state to do the preventing. Law was a primary tool for prevention, and throughout the 19th century, and into the early twentieth, the extent and limitations of federal, state and local public health authority was litigated, debated in legislatures and defined in voluminous treatises by scholars like Freund, Tiedeman and Tobey.

And then, it got quiet.

Despite the efforts of lawyers like Frank Grad and Bill Curran, the American Journal of Public Health introduced in 1961 a very basic overview with the observation that “public health law is a subject which is treated rather infrequently in the public health literature.”

Only in the 1980s, with HIV and the growing fight against non-communicable threats, did public health law as a distinct field begin a Renaissance. The powers, duties and constraint upon government health agencies were once again topics that a lot of people were interested in hearing about.  The field grew.  Treatises and books and articles proliferated. Just this summer, James Hodge reported 158 professors teaching public health law at 62 law schools, 32 public health schools, and 13 medical or other schools.

What has been strikingly absent from the conception of public health law has been an empirical dimension. In the world of health research, there is certainly a long tradition of evaluation of specific legal interventions. But, law has been subsumed in an abstract concept of “policy” that was never informed by sociolegal research, and public health law is uninformed by a sophisticated understanding of law as a social practice, regulatory tool or institutional environment.  Empirical public health law, or what we call “public health law research,” is aimed to legitimize and normalize empirical research and a more sociological view of law in both legal and health fields, and today, it is a growing field.

Public health law research, or PHLR, is the scientific study of the relation of law and legal practices to population health. Our office, the Public Health Law Research National Program Office at Temple University, is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation dedicated to funding empirical research on the impact of laws and legal practices on the population, and we do whatever else we can to support the people who are creating and using evidence.

Our grantees evaluate everything from HIV disclosure laws to graduated driver license decal provisions, to the impact of land-use zoning on crime, and how local legal infrastructure affects public health.

Throughout the next year as we blog here, we’ll be sharing results from our grantees, talking about public health law research methods, and discussing all the social and cultural issues that shape how we think about disease, health and evidence.

Click above to watch our video, “What Is Public Health Law Research?,” and you can read our framing paper, visit our website, and follow us on Twitter or Facebook for more information before next week’s post.

Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research

Based at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, the Center for Public Health Law Research supports the widespread adoption of scientific tools and methods for mapping and evaluating the impact of law on health. It works by developing and teaching public health law research and legal epidemiology methods (including legal mapping and policy surveillance); researching laws and policies that improve health, increase access to care, and create or remove barriers to health (e.g., laws or policies that create or remove inequity); and communicating and disseminating evidence to facilitate innovation.

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