William Bicknell, Iconoclastic IH Professor, 1936-2012

Posted on: June 6, 2012

Dr. William J. Bicknell, an outspoken, inspirational professor of international health who sought to “make people hurt less,” has died after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

bicknell_segway_2Bill Bicknell rides his Segway to Talbot Hall after his final lecture on May 2.Bicknell, who died Tuesday night at his home in Marshfield, Mass., was the founder and chair emeritus of the Department of International Health at the School of Public Health and helped grow the department into a globally recognized leader. He held a dual appointment at the School of Medicine as a professor and director of international health programs in the Department of Family Medicine.

During a varied career that spanned five decades and merged disciplines of practice and policy, Bicknell held posts as the first medical director of the U.S. Job Corps, Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, acting director of the Neighborhood Health Center Program for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, and medical director of health and retirement funds for the United Mine Workers of America.

School of Public Health Dean Robert Meenan credited Bicknell with being an essential part of the School almost from its beginning, and a fundamental force in the expanded presence of international health at BU. “Global health is now a major focus of Boston University and none of that would have been true without Bill Bicknell,” Meenan said. “The mission of the school is to prioritize the disadvantaged, underserved and vulnerable and Bill has embodied that mission in his life’s work. “

Diagnosed in 2010 with metastatic lung cancer that eventually spread to his brain, Bicknell detailed his fight with methodical precision in blog updates and in a poignant final lecture. On May 2, Bicknell returned to the BU Medical Campus to deliver “Lessons Learned from a Life in Public Health,” a no-holds-barred personal recap of his experiences furthering public health in 62 countries. 

In many ways, the lecture was a reflection of the man who gave it: blunt but caring; profane yet profound. Rapid-fire observations delivered with clinical detachment were followed by touching anecdotes about Bicknell’s main career goal: making health services work better for the poor and other difficult to serve populations.

Dr. Brian Jack, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Family Medicine at Boston Medical Center and the BU School of Medicine, said Bicknell devoted the last years of his life to strengthening the work of the Lesotho-Boston Health Alliance. Bicknell and Jack founded the alliance a decade ago to improve Lesotho’s medical capacity by strengthening hospitals and establishing a family medicine residency program to help retain physicians in the impoverished country.

“Lesotho is arguably one of the most needy countries in the world, and in the last years of his life, Bill dedicated himself to strengthening its health systems,” Jack said. Even after Bicknell was diagnosed with cancer, he continued to travel to Lesotho, making a final trip in March to say goodbye to the many people he had befriended over the years.

“He was my good friend and a trusted colleague and mentor, and his heart was with the people of Lesotho, to make their lives better,” Jack said.

Jack noted that Bicknell was a strong believer in empowering communities to solve their own health problems, rather than prescribing solutions. The Lesotho program grew out of a series of workshops that the two men had conducted in Lesotho, in which the recruiting and retaining of physicians emerged as a key problem for the country. Once the problem was identified, “we got to work on a strategy to address it,” Jack said.

Bicknell was known to tell students and colleagues that the first step in approaching public health — at home or abroad — was simply to listen.

Kate Mitchell, MPH ’09, was Bicknell’s student in spring of 2008 and later worked as one of his teaching assistants. In a heartfelt reminiscence, Mitchell recalled that Bicknell began each semester with his unique definition of public health: “The art and science of deciding who dies, when, and with what degree of misery.” But Bicknell also said public health could easily be defined as “the art and science of deciding who lives a longer, less miserable, happier life.”

Bicknell’s warning, Mitchell said: “If you approach your work with the second definition, you often forget the consequences of what happens when you fail. Always keep the first definition in mind.”

Born and raised in Newton, Mass., Bicknell earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Johns Hopkins University in 1958. After graduating from Duke University School of Medicine in 1963, Bicknell joined the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and was named senior physician for Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. While there, he also worked in local hospitals and was exposed to a level of illness and suffering that presaged his shift to public health.

“It was a social and intellectual and emotional change for me,” Bicknell said in April 2012. “It totally hooked me on making services work for people, on improving health care systems.”

Several years after returning from Ethiopia, Bicknell earned an MPH from the University of California, Berkeley. He estimated during his May 2 talk that he had spent about half of his career working to further public health in the United States and half overseas – a proportion that he quipped “felt just right.” After coming to BU in 1978, he focused on establishing the curriculum for the nascent Department of International Health and later established the Center for International Health that was eventually expanded into the current Center for Global Health and Development.

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In recent weeks, tributes to Bicknell from faculty and former students flooded in to his CaringBridge website. Bicknell had posted frequent updates until Monday, June 4, when his wife, Brandeis University professor Jane Hale, wrote that Bill was no longer able to write to followers himself.

Former student Pratibha Shah, SPH ’11, wrote on the CaringBridge site, “It has been a privilege and honor to have known you, taken your class and interacted with you. My journey in (the) US, especially my academic journey, has been filled with many unforgettable people and experiences. But you have definitely stamped my heart and mind forever with your indefatigable spirit and most unique personality. You have a lion’s heart and a leopard’s mind.”

Another former student, Jane Craycroft, SPH ’95, recalled the first time she met Bicknell: “You were my advisor at BUSPH. I first laid eyes on you during fall 1992 orientation and witnessed you deep in thought (sleeping?) while loads of us newbies filled one of the auditoriums. Later the same day, during the refreshment part of the event, while speaking with a group of students and eating a sandwich, you needed to be hands free (perhaps you started gesticulating or a handshake took place), so you put your sandwich in the pocket of your blue blazer. My initial thoughts were … my advisor is a crazy nut, what have I gotten myself into?

“Shortly after that day, I realized that, yes, you were a crazy nut but crazy in a dedicated, trailblazing, passionate, and full-of-life sort of way. A way I wanted to be, a way I strive to be.”

Monita Baba Djara, a clinical instructor in international health at BUSPH, said Bicknell’s “iconic presence” would be missed.

“You have always been an inspiration to me in the fierceness of your commitment to making the world a less ‘stupid’ place,” Djara wrote on the site. “Your legacy of asking the tough questions from a caring heart will live on in all of us who have had the privilege of working with you and being influenced by your unique brand of PH [public health].”

Many of those influenced by Bicknell said goodbye at the May 2 lecture and in small gatherings held in Boston and Lesotho. He spent his last days accompanied by family and friends at home in Marshfield, in a sunroom where he could look out across the salt-marsh landscape that he loved.

A memorial service will be held at North Community Church, 72 Old Main Street, Marshfield, Mass., on Saturday, June 16 at 11 am. The Lesotho-Boston Health Alliance will construct a house in Bill’s honor for medical students, residents, and visitors at Motebang Hospital in Leribe, Lesotho. Tax-deductible donations to this project may be sent to Global Primary Care, P.O. Box 181084, Boston, MA 02118.

Submitted by Michael Saunders (msaunder@bu.edu) and Lisa Chedekel (chedekel@bu.edu)