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How W.e.b. Dubois Revolutionized Health Disparities Research in Public Health

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The life and career of W.E.B Dubois was vastly multi-faceted and prolific, and his scope of talents and global citizenship encompasses various disciplines. “While his contributions to civil rights, sociology, history, African American Studies and Urban studies are universally recognized, his legacy in public health and epidemiology is not as widely acknowledged by contemporary health researchers.” This paper will provide an overview of W.E.B Dubois’s career and how his research and ideologies have benefited public health, epidemiology and the African American community. I will also illustrate how the political, socioeconomic, environmental and technological climate facilitated the adaption of Dubois’s values. Next, I will examine W.E.B Dubois’s personal philosophies as well as the adversities he overcame. Lastly, I will discuss the effects of W.E.B Dubois’s work and how his contributions benefitted the African American community and Public Health as a collective.


William Edward Burghardt Dubois was born February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. His parents were both of mixed heritage and were free people of color. During this time in history, many African Americans were not fortunate to go to school and get an education. Fortunately, for Dubois he had the opportunity to go to school with the white children and had access to a quality education. It wasn’t until much later in life when he down south to Nashville, 1885 to attend Fisk University that he first encountered racism firsthand. Seeing how African Americans were treated in the south sparked a fire in W.E.B Dubois and he began to stand up for the rights of African Americans. A devoted scholar, W.E.B Dubois received his first degree from Fisk University, and in 1895 became the first African American to graduate with a Doctorates degree from Harvard University. After completing school in America, Dubois studied abroad in Berlin, Germany. While in Europe, he perceived the different beliefs regarding how to treat others in society, and W.E.B Dubois brought these ideologies back to the US. W.E.B Dubois went on to publish “The Philadelphia Negro” and “The Souls of Black Folk”. One of the issues that propelled Dubois to the public eye, was his opposing viewpoints with Booker T. Washington regarding the Atlanta Compromise. Dubois believed in equal rights, and was not willing to compromise his standards. Another big accomplishment in W.E.B Dubois’s life was that he helped to cofound the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). W.E.B Dubois spent the remainder of his life fighting for civil rights and ironically died one day before the historic “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. W.E.B Dubois was one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century and his contributions to civil rights, sociology and public health will forever be commemorated by humanity.

The Signs of the Times

W.E.B Dubois lived a very long abundant life spanning over nine decades. For the purpose of this paper, this section will predominately focus on the Progressive Era and how the shifting consciousness of America influenced the great mind of W.E.B Dubois. The Progressive Era spanned from the 1890s to the 1920s and ushered in transformative reform. As the 20th century emerged, America had a booming economy, had just experienced victory in the Spanish American War, and enjoyed a host of new inventions such as the telephone and the lightbulb. A large number of American citizens were extremely optimistic about the future. So much so that the period between 1900 and 1910 was often referred to as the “Age of Optimism”. But an increasing number of Americans began to focus on the problems that the new industrial age presented. Problems that included corporate monopolies, mistreatment of laborers, and overcrowding in cities. Citizens who sought reform to these issues were called “Progressives” and historians now refer to the period between the turn of the century and the outbreak of World War I as the Progressive Era. The next sections will expound on the political, socioeconomic, environmental and technological advancements that ensued during this age.


In the late 1800’s the United States experienced rapid industrial growth. But this period of growth included corruption and inequality. Big businesses often used their growing profits and power to destroy competitors and formed monopolies in the railroad, steel, coal and oil industries. Corrupt city leaders called bosses accepted bribes and gave contracts and jobs to their political allies. The reform movement of progressivism arose to combat the greed, corruption and other problems that industrialization had created. Progressives most of whom came from middle class, wanted to improve the lives of the poor living in America’s growing slums. Progressives succeeded in creating a public outcry against government corruption. Theodore Roosevelt was America’s first progressive president, between 1901 and 1909 Roosevelt used his position to break up many trust, these were huge combinations of companies that used their economic power to take advantage of their competitors and workers. Roosevelt’s square deal was designed to give all Americans an equal chance to succeed. Roosevelt created the Pure Food and Drug Act to protect consumers and he established the National Park system to conserve the environment. Progressives also hoped to win the right for women to vote. Finally under President Woodrow Wilson the 19th Amendment was passed allowing women the right to vote.


Despite all of the improvements mentioned previously, many people felt left behind, America’s minority populations and new immigrants continued to face deep prejudice segregation, and violence. While Progressive activist succeeded in reducing corruption, and improved worker and food safety, and increased the rights of women, widespread racial injustice and anti-immigration sentiment remained part of American society. Progressives aimed to improve American society by restoring equal economic opportunities and correcting social injustice. The industrialization of the new workforce made workers less valuable. Workers received low wages, worked under hazardous conditions, and worked very long hours. Child labor was also a very common practice. Working conditions in mines and factories were harsh and dangerous. As people flooded into cities in search of work, the problems of crowded housing and poor sanitation increased.


The heavy industrialization and urbanization of America produced a host of environmental issues. Natural resources were disappearing rapidly and the state of the environment was being severely compromised. The Progressive Era embraced new ideologies regarding the environment and nature conservation. One of the most influential conservationist of this time was President Theodore Roosevelt. “President Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic conservationist, he created wildlife reserves and he led the movement to establish the United States Forestry Service in 1905 to ban the sale of federal wilderness”.


The technological advancements during the Progressive Era were nothing short of remarkable and life altering. The development of the lightbulb, the automobile, the airplane and the telephone are just a few of the notable inventions of this time. Society was constantly striving to improve technology and upward mobility. Many people left rural areas or their homes in their native countries to work in the new factories in America’s cities. Large corporations spread across the country and the industrialization and urbanization of America transformed and shaped our modern ideology of city life.

How W.E.B Dubois’s Principles Prompted His Work

All of the aforementioned advancements in society helped shape the progressive thinking of W.E.B Dubois. He was a firm believer of equal rights, and I believe this was the foundation that characterized all of his works in Public Health, Sociology, and Civil Rights. Dubois most notably is recognized for his opposing viewpoints regarding Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise. The Atlanta Compromise sacrificed Black Americans being in leadership positions, in order to get steady work. Dubois in contrast stood for full equality, regardless of race, color, or creed.

How W.E.B Dubois Overcame Adversity

W.E.B Dubois was greatly impacted by the tragic death of his newborn son Burghardt, and the harsh racism, discrimination and severe prejudice he experienced during his time in Tennessee and while living in Atlanta, Georgia. Dubois’s first born child died as an infant as a result of diphtheria. None of the white physicians would see the infant, and Dubois unfortunately was unable to get in contact with one of the three black doctors in Atlanta in time to save the child’s life. I believe that overcoming the untimely death of his son left a profound impact that followed him the rest of his lifetime. Blacks do not die, because they are biologically inferior to whites, they die because they are lack wealth and accessibility to the same resources as whites.

How W.E.B Dubois’s Contributions Impacted the African American Community and Public Health

“W.E.B. Dubois, was an African-American writer, teacher, sociologist and activist whose work transformed the way that the lives of black citizens were seen in American society. DuBois was an early champion of using data to solve social issues for the black community.” Dubois challenged scientist to reevaluate dangerous and erroneous eugenic principles in favor of investigating the actual socioeconomic factors that undermine public health.

Why W.E.B Dubois’s Contributions to Public Health Were So Impactful During This Era

Dubois used his logic and intellect to challenge the popular sentiments of the time. Eugenics and biological racial inferiority complexes were the general consensus. Dubois challenged racist biological inferiority rhetoric by analyzing the social constructs that foster health disparities such as socioeconomic factors that threaten the lives and health of African Americans. “In the late 19th and early 20th century the dominant medical paradigm attributed any observed racial difference in health to innate biological differences between racial groups”. “In contrast, Dubois saw racial differences in health as reflecting differences in social advancements and vastly different conditions under which blacks and whites lived. He argued that although the causes of racial differences in health were multi-factorial, they were nonetheless primarily social.”

Final Outcome of W.E.B Dubois’s Contribution to African American Community and Public Health

W.E.B. Dubois contributions to sociology and public health are invaluable and his impactful philosophies have altered societies perception of race and health disparities. “During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Black and White differences in mortality and morbidity were largely attributed to notions of biological racial inferiority. Efforts by Dubois to challenge these predominant notions resulted in the systematic empirical investigation of social factors contributing to Black health risk and health disparities”. Although health disparities amongst blacks is still common today, we can acknowledge the role Dubois played in exposing the socioeconomic conditions that promote health disparities amongst minorities and the disenfranchised.

Dubois was a freedom fighter who fought for African Americans to be viewed equally biologically, socially, and politically. W.E.B Dubois is a visionary, who’s progressive philosophies will continue to influence the souls of black of folks and all folks through his legacy.

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