Medical student Julio Frenk was inspired to address health policy in his native Mexico by a visit to the impoverished southern state of Chiapas. After a career immersed in public health, Frenk now has a global reach. Colleagues say the newly appointed dean of the Harvard School of Public Health has a superlative track record of creating health policy based on scientific evidence. See CV

After receiving his medical degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Frenk pursued a public-health career at the University of Michigan. He obtained master's degrees in public health and in sociology, but it was a PhD in medical-care organization and sociology that gave him insight into crafting health-care policy.

While working on his degrees, Frenk wrote articles critical of Mexico's medical care that caught the eye of the new health minister, Guillermo Soberón, who was eager to improve the country's epidemiological capability. Frenk developed a proposal for a Center for Public Health Research and became the founding director first of that, and then of the National Institute of Public Health.

“This opportunity to combine excellence with relevance was the beginning of my career,” he says. “This is a great example of how a world-class university can help build a developing country's capacity — without creating dependence.”

Harvey Fineberg, then dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and one-time adviser to Mexico's nascent institute, says that Frenk seemed destined to excel in public health and medicine because of his broad grasp of the issues. “He has converted evidence into practice with a strength and vision seldom combined,” says Fineberg, now president of the US Institute of Medicine.

Later, a report from Frenk on the Mexican health system and recommendations necessary for health-care reform caught the attention of the World Health Organization's then director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland. She hired Frenk to do similar work at a global level as executive director of the organization's evidence and information-policy section. In 2000, Frenk became Mexico's minister of health, enacting reforms based on his analyses.

At Harvard, Frenk plans to explore what public health should look like in the twenty-first century. “A citizen of Mexico will bring a fresh perspective and send a very important signal that Harvard is serious about its global reach,” says Fineberg.