For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Remembering Jonathan Mann

Jonathan Mann, MD, MPH (1947-1998) was a renowned humanitarian and founding dean of the School of Public Health.

Jonathan Mann

Below is a reflection on Jonathan Mann's legacy by The Honorable Michael Kirby AC CMG (Australia).

Kirby is a former Justice of the High Court of Australia (1996-2009) and was a member of the UNAIDS Reference Group on HIV and Human Rights (2004-2019). He has been Patron of the Kirby Institute since 2011.

It was my great privilege to have known Jonathan Mann. He became the first Director of the Global Programme on AIDS of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1986. He was appointed to that post by Dr. Halfdan Mahler, then Director-General of WHO. It was an inspired choice. Mann was an experienced epidemiologist. But more than that he was charismatic, inspiring, multilingual and original in his approach to disease and global health. He created the WHO Global Commission on AIDS in 1988. That is where I first fell under his spell.

Whereas previously the response to epidemics had generally followed Biblical strategies of isolation, detention, separation, Mann confronted AIDS, an epidemic that was already out of control, transborder and without effective medication in a wholly fresh and novel way. This led him to adopt completely different approaches to disease control. He spoke in the language of universal human rights. He proclaimed the AIDS paradox: the most effective way to treat the HIV epidemic was to reach out to, and involve, those already infected or at primary risk of infection. He insisted on close collaboration with people living with AIDS. And with LGBT and other marginalised groups. Only a person of the most extraordinary capacities of communication and persuasion could have carried off his strategy and taken traditional experts and sceptical officials with him.

Needless to say, Mann attracted opponents. He soon fell out with Mahler’s successor in WHO. He resigned, came back to his homeland, the United States. He first went to Harvard, and then to Philadelphia, where he had become the founding Dean of a new school of public health that would be based on human rights. That school is now the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University. In his role as Dean, Mann designed a curriculum centered around problem-based learning, working with communities, and focused upon the fundamental causes of health disparities – discrimination, stigma, and marginalization: in other words, human rights violations. He insisted that his strategy was not only the most effective from the point of view of responding to HIV, but it was also essential to ensuring fulfillment of the Constitution of the WHO which in 1946 defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” The WHO Constitution further stated that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” Mann insisted that respecting human rights was the right and lawful thing to do. He surrounded himself with Nobel Laurates and other brilliant scientists in his own discipline, medicine. But he was equally at home with philosophers, social scientists, civil society and even judges like me.

After Mann tragically died in a plane crash on 2 September 1998, there were many memorial occasions to remember his lessons. But the best and most lasting way to do so is in a center for health and human rights that bears his name. A center at the cutting edge of the science of health. But also one that has deep knowledge and understanding of the abiding lessons of universal human rights. Protecting human rights actually works in health crises. And in any case, doing so is important in principle, apart from the consequences.

Jonathan Mann was a fierce advocate for change in epidemiology and disease control. He understood the vital importance of a global response. He realized the significant role that the United Nations and its agencies could fulfill. He appreciated the vital need for global solidarity abroad. He preached the critical importance of community engagement and participation at home.

As the founding Dean of the School of Public Health at Drexel University, his legacy is still strongly felt within the school. The need for his legacy is still critical to recognition of the importance of training students, conducting research and translating research into practice with a human rights lens. Few public health schools in the United States or worldwide have this vision or commitment – to human rights, to community engagement, to addressing health disparities and to ensuring that those who are most vulnerable receive care.

I honor Drexel because it continues this legacy. But amidst all of the challenges we face today, of increasing economic inequity, climate change and environmental degradation, conflict, political repression and emerging public health threats, the creation of a new center on health and human rights named for Jonathan Mann is timely and overdue. The present age is less inclined to cherish globalism and human rights. We must rekindle these forces and carry on Jonathan Mann’s legacy. It is needed today, more than ever. Jonathan Mann translated human rights theory into practical measures to advance the dignity of human beings everywhere and to protect their health. We honour ourselves by honouring him. In my life I have met many wonderful scientists, human rights activists, brilliant physicians, spellbinding advocates and amazing leaders. But there has only been one Jonathan Mann. Who wrapped himself in all of these raiments. He left a legacy that must endure.