Dr. Joyce Cohen Lashof became the first woman to be appointed director of any State Department of Public Health when she was appointed director of the Ilinois Department of Public Health in 1973. She was instrumental in the development of community health centers and has been a leader in both the American Public Health Association and the Association of Schools of Public Health.
Born in Philadelphia on March 27, 1926, young Joyce Cohen was motivated to become a doctor as a result of her combined interest in science and people. The year she sought to enter medical school, 1945, was also the year that thousands of men were returning from World War II and were given priority admission to America's colleges and universities. The number of women admitted to coeducational schools was limited, but she was accepted to the school that had been a long-time resource for women, the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania.
After completing her residency in medicine at Montefiore Hospital in New York in 1953, she went to the University of Chicago as a physician at the Student Health Services and then as an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine. In 1960, she again faced discrimination as a woman in medicine, when the chairman of the department told her that he was reluctant to grant tenure to a woman because he feared she would leave if her husband took another job somewhere else.
Fortunately, colleagues referred her to Dr. Mark H. Lepper, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, who became her mentor and long-term collaborator. Dr. Lepper offered her a faculty appointment in the department, and arranged an appointment as assistant attending physician at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital. He also appointed her research director of a study of health needs funded by the Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO). The study's conclusions led her to recommend opening health centers for the underserved in Chicago. Collaboration between the West Side's Mile Square organization and Presbyterian-St. Luke's brought about an OEO-funded Mile Square Health Center, which was only the second OEO-funded health center in the country. Dr. Lashof served as its director from 1967 to 1971, and was also promoted to attending physician and director for the Section of Community Medicine, at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital.
In a 1994 interview, Dr. Lashof said that she had made a conscious decision to move away from the highly competitive, time-consuming field of infectious diseases when she had three young children. She wanted to spend more time with her family, and decided to shift her career from hospital administration to public health and medical research. She noticed that there were greater opportunities for women in public health, in part because of a commitment to equality and social justice, and this field also offered more opportunities for a woman to get involved in politics and government. Dr. Lashof's research interests include primary care, health policy as related to health promotion and disease prevention, and integration of health and social services.
In 1973 Dr. Lashof became the first woman to be named the director of the state of Illinois Public Health Department, a position she held until 1977. In 1981, she was named dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, becoming the first woman to be appointed dean of a Professional School at Berkeley. She was made president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in 1987 and president of the American Public Health Association in 1991. She chaired the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Gulf War Veterans' Illness, from 1995 to 1997, and the Institute of Medicine Committee on Technologies for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer, from 1999 to 2001.