World War I -- Life Histories/Section 018/Milton J. Rosenau

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Milton J. Rosenau was an epidemiologist. He served in the U.S. Marine Hospital Service during WWI and later in life worked at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


Milton J. Rosenau was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 1st, 1869. The son of two Jewish merchants, Rosenau attended Philadelphia public schools and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine where he received an M.D. in the spring of 1899. Furthering his education, Rosenau also spent time at multiple schools of medicine in Europe. In 1890 Rosenau enlisted in the United States Marine Hospitals Service where he worked as an assistant surgeon, a quarantine officer in San Francisco and Cuba, and was eventually appointed director of the Hygienic Laboratory of the National Institute of Health. It was during his time as a researcher that Rosenau developed a passion for public health and some his most important investigative research on disease prevention and sanitation. Rosenau published two influential works on sanitation including The Milk Question and Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, the former of which is in its tenth edition and remains a heavily utilized textbook in the field. Milton J. Rosenau joined Harvard Medical School in 1913 where he worked as a professor. Through correspondence with other medical professors at the institution and a passion for promoting the importance of public health, Rosenau helped co-found the School of Health officers as a joint effort between Harvard and MIT. He continued his work in education at this school until 1936 when he moved down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and founded the School of Public Health, only the eighth school of its kind in the country. Rosenau served as the first dean of the school until his death in 1946 of a heart attack at the age of 77.

Social Issues[edit]

Milk Pasteurization[edit]

Rosenau dedicated his life to public health and preventative medicine, and one of the specific causes he championed was milk pasteurization. The constitution of milk makes it an excellent medium for microbial growth. When stored at room temperature for extended periods of time these microbes begin to replicate themselves exponentially.[1] This process can give rise to a number of deadly pathogens, and cases of death due to milk-borne illness were rising in soldiers deployed over seas. The cause of this was that many military camps, especially those forced to be mobile, lacked the convenience of equipment necessary to keep milk at a low enough temperature to slow the rate of microbial growth. In reaction to this issue, a new way of safeguarding milk from milk-borne disease called pasteurization was invented. Pasteurization works by heating milk to a temperature that kills pathogenic and non-pathogenic organisms and extends the shelf life of milk by a vast amount.[2]However, the pasteurization of milk was seen popularly as an unnecessary hassle that worsened the taste of milk[3]. Rosenau conducted research on the issue and published a book called the Milk Question in 1912 to help articulate his argument to the public. In it, he argued that the pasteurization of milk, next to water sanitation, was at the time the single most important preventative measure in the field of public health.[4] Rosenau proved that low temperature and slow pasteurization saved the taste of milk and with that discovery the process of pasteurization became mainstream. Research on sanitation was applied to improve the living situation of soldiers, and work on milk pasteurization saved countless of soldier and civilian lives internationally from milk-born disease.


Rosenau's career did not begin in education, but as a result of his knowledge in the field of public health, and numerous requests for him to speak and guest lecture nationwide, Rosenau relocated to Harvard Harvard in 1913 and became a professor. It would be during this time at Harvard that he would encounter a major problem in education, the lack of public health programs in colleges across the United States. At the time an individual looking to study specifically public health was faced with the lack of programs and forced to study a broader topic such as biology or medicine. The need for individuals with public health knowledge reached a critical point during WWI due to the high demand for sanitary spaces in which soldiers could inhabit, and a desire to decrease the high number of soldier casualties due to diseases that spread easily in population dense environments. This need for public health professionals increased even further in the closing months of the war due to the beginning of the 1918 flu pandemic. That year the influenza virus was spread to pandemic levels as a result of high levels of interstate contact during the World War. By the end of the outbreak, more people had died than all casualties in WWI.[5] Educators in the United States realized the effect public health schooling could have for the US and the rest of the world, and as a result there was a major push to found schools of public health nationwide. The joint project Rosenau worked on with MIT professor William T. Sedgewick that would eventually become the Harvard School of Public Health is just one example. Another example came in 1936 when Rosenau left Harvard for The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. where he would remain until his death, and founded the university’s first public health school and was quickly appointed dean of the institution.


  1. "Making Milk Media." Making Milk Microbiology Media. Indiana Bio Lab, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  2. "Microbiology." Microbiology. International Livestock Research Institute, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.
  3. Holsinger, V. H. "Milk Pasteurization and Safety: A Brief History and Update."Milk Pasteurisation and Safety: A Brief History and Update (1997): n. pag. OIE. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
  4. Rosenau, M. J. The Milk Question. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1912. Print.
  5. "The Influenza Epidemic of 1918." National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.