Brandt Offers Diverse Resume

New GSAS Dean will bring interdisciplinary background to bear in unifying University

The scene featured the kind of irony that makes spoof newscasts worth watching: ignorance controlling expertise, the jocular triumphing over the serious, the layman anchor taking the scholarly, bespectacled professor to task on the subject of his own book.

“Maybe it’s the coffee people—if they had created a more complete product, we wouldn’t need cigarettes,” suggested Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” to his guest, Allan M. Brandt, the Harvard medical historian and author of “The Cigarette Century.”

“Well, it’s certainly possible,” Brandt, a picture of scholarly patience, bemusedly replied.

“Are you humoring me?” Stewart asked, accusingly, drawing a chorus of laughs from the audience, and unwittingly providing the greatest irony of the June appearance.

At a time when interdisciplinary and campus-wide collaboration has been identified as a priority, Brandt, appointed last week as the dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, will likely find his greatest asset to be his capacity to humor and unite the far-flung, autonomous, and occasionally disparate elements of a complex University community.


Brandt has built a network of colleagues since he arrived at Harvard 15 years ago.

Colleagues point to his joint appointment as a historian of science at both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and Harvard Medical School as good preparation for the job.

“I don’t know anybody who’s been in a more interdisciplinary kind of context over his career,” said Charles Rosenberg, who also holds appointments at FAS and the Medical School.

Brandt also served as an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice in its successful 2004 case against several high-profile tobacco companies, giving him legal experience to supplement his background in history and medicine.

Brandt’s diverse resume will be particularly important at a time when Harvard is emphasizing cross-school collaboration in the sciences as it expands into Allston, noted History of Science Professor Peter Galison.

“These next decades are going to be crucial in bringing together the different parts of the University,” Galison said, citing internet privacy, biological privacy, and national security among the issues that will demand increased interdisciplinary study.

Brandt identifies collaboration as an ongoing focus, referencing his popular Core course, “Historical Study A-34: Medicine and Society in America.” He said that he views the course as a vehicle for educating undergraduates and graduates together.

“When I was giving the Core course, I was always working simultaneously with graduate students, with undergraduates and really thinking of it as a whole,” Brandt said. “This is one of the things I’ve been thinking about with the graduate school. How can the graduate school interact more collegially and collaboratively with the College?”


Brandt’s ambitious University-wide outreach will likely be aided by a set of widely praised speaking skills that have carried him through high-pressure situations in the past.

Gail E. Henderson, a University of North Carolina social medicine professor who knew Brandt during his two-year stint as an associate professor at the school in the early 1990s, recalled Brandt’s performance at a speech for the Infectious Diseases Society of America in 1992.

On an invitation from Henderson’s husband, Myron “Mike” S. Cohen, Brandt showed up to address the 5,000-strong audience with no slides.

“At that time going to a medical meeting you couldn’t talk without slides,” Henderson said.

“It’s one of the lores of our friendship that Mike was sweating bullets before this thing,” she added. “And Allan just did his magic, and the audience stayed for the whole speech. A lot of the time, people go in and out.”

When Henderson herself invited Brandt back to Chapel Hill to give another lecture this fall, she compared his arrival on campus to a “rockstar event,” making the talk—which had been delivered in the past by several Nobel prize winners—the best-attended ever, she said.

Brandt’s lectures have also helped him to gain popularity with his undergraduate students. Katherine E. O’Donnell ’10, who took his freshman seminar, “The Tobacco Pandemic,” last year, remembered a professor who made it impossible to “zone out” during class.

“All the students he’s ever had are really impressed by him,” she said, adding that Brandt had played a key role in inspiring her to major in the History of Science. “I run into people from the freshman seminar still and they say, ‘Yeah, did you hear professor Brandt’s the new dean?’ ”

While Brandt’s appointment has generated excitement among some students, it does not come without concern for the History of Science Department.

The department estimates that about 40 percent of undergraduate concentrators follow a medical track in their studies, making the departure of medical historian Brandt particularly worrisome.

“It’s a big problem for the department,” Rosenberg said. “Obviously, common sense says that we’re going to have a problem meeting the needs of all undergraduates.”

But Brandt said he wouldn’t be leaving his lecture slides behind for good. Instead, he said he planned on “shifting” around his academic career with designs on returning later.

“I really didn’t think about taking on the deanship as ending my teaching or my research career,” Brandt said. “I will remain engaged in the substantive questions for the history of medicine and global health that have motivated my work for a long time.”

—Jamison A. Hill contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at