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Obituaries

Dr. M. Harvey Brenner, a renowned scholar of the economy’s impact on public health, dies

Dr. M. Harvey Brenner taught health policy and management for more than three decades at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Dr. M. Harvey Brenner, who taught health policy and management for more than three decades at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was also an international expert on the relationships between economic factors and mental health, died Sept. 20 from sepsis at the Deutsches Herzzentrum in Munich, Germany. The Baltimore and Fort Worth, Texas, resident was 82.

“His 1979 Lancet article, ‘Unemployment, Economic Growth, and Mortality,’ was the landmark and definitive piece in what we now call health disparities. He was an international scholar in the true sense of the word,” said Dr. David P. Cistola, a colleague and friend for a decade, who is professor and director of the Center of Emphasis in Diabetes and Metabolism at the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso.

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Both men became acquainted when Dr. Cistola was at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth.

“That’s when I got to know Harvey and his work, which was the study of the impact of the economy on health and the effect it also had on nations,” Dr. Cistola said. “He was an extremely eloquent speaker and both students and colleagues would flock to his lectures. He was just exceptional.”

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Dr. Jose A. Pagan, who is a professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, had known Dr. Brenner since their days when they worked together in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Harvey was just an overall nice guy who always had a lot of things on his mind. He was an academic and a mentor,” said Dr. Pagan. “He liked solving problems and understanding their impact on people’s health when they lost jobs because of depressions, recessions and lately COVID.”

Born Meyer Harvey Brenner — he never used his first name and was known as M. Harvey Brenner — was the son of Jewish refugees who escaped from Nazi Berlin. Born and raised in New York City, his father was Robert Brenner, an international import-export executive, and his mother, Ethel Brenner, was a homemaker.

After graduating from the Manhattan’s Ramaz School, Dr. Brenner earned a bachelor’s degree in 1962 in economics from City University of New York. He obtained a master’s degree in 1964, and Ph.D. in 1966, in sociology from Yale University.

He was an associate professor of epidemiology, public health and sociology at Yale Medical School and Yale University until 1972, when he came to Baltimore and joined what is now the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. There, he worked in operations research, which was centered in the departments of behavioral sciences and mental hygiene. He was also director of research for the Center of Metropolitan Planning and Research.

From 1979 to 2004, Dr. Brenner taught in Bloomberg’s department of health policy management as well as the division of behavioral and social sciences and the faculty of arts and sciences.

He had been visiting professor in social medicine and health research at the Medical University of Hannover Institute of Epidemiology in Germany from 1996 to the present, and from 1996 to 2005, was professor of epidemiology at Berlin University of Technology’s Institute for Health Sciences.

He returned to New Haven, Connecticut, in 2001, where for the next two years, he was visiting professor at the Yale School of Medicine’s department of epidemiology and public health.

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In 2005, he joined the faculty of the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth in the School of Public Health where he taught until 2020, when he was named distinguished professor of public health.

In 1965, Dr. Brenner began studying and researching the relationship between economic variations and its effects on mental and physical health, which resulted in suicides, homicides, heart attacks, strokes and incidences of cirrhosis of the liver.

“The long-term trends in economic growth and changes in employment are the main issues in mortality ... Suicide is the best economic indicator we have ... It is an indication of failure,” he explained in a 1980 Evening Sun interview.

“The suicide rate, like the incidence of depression, rises when the economy falls,” reported The Baltimore Sun in a 2009 article.

“It is so regular a pattern among most of the industrialized countries of the world that it is virtually an economic indicator,” Dr. Brenner explained in the article. “It’s a standard feature of recession.”

A renowned scholar of the economy’s impact on public health, he had not retired at his death.Most recently, he had written and published about how COVID-19 related to depression, anxiety, and suicide. He also worked tirelessly to enhance the health of disadvantaged communities.

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“His book ‘Mental Illness and the Economy,’ generated decades of scholarship on the implications of economic change (especially unemployment) as it affects suicide and chronic disease mortality in the United States and industrialized countries,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

In 1996, Dr. Brenner earned the career award for scientific excellence from the American Public Health Association for pioneering the field of health inequalities due to socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.

He had been an adviser to the U.S. Congressional Joint Economic Committee, Congressional Research Service, U.S. Department of the Treasury, European Union, Ford Foundation and Carey Foundation.

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Driven by an intense curiosity, Dr. Brenner wrote and published widely on a variety of topics that included political philosophy, sociology, economics, psychiatry, statistics and nonlinear physics.

“He was a tireless defender of academic freedom who cared deeply about the well-being of others,” according to the biographical profile. “Dr. Brenner was a brilliant and inspiring intellectual colleague, a good friend and father, and a wonderful companion. His amazing sense of justice and humor will be greatly missed.”

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His family has established The M. Harvey Brenner Research Institute in order to maintain his legacy and guarantee that his works-in-progress will be completed and published. His book, ‘Life, Death and the Economy,” will be posthumously published by Oxford University Press. Several articles examining the unique effects of a COVID-19-induced recession on mortality in the U.S. and worldwide are also scheduled for publication.

Dr. Brenner, who lived in Baltimore’s Belvedere Hotel, also maintained a home in Fort Worth.

Graveside services were held Friday at Baltimore Hebrew Cemetery.

He is survived by his wife of 20 years, Dr. Elke Heckner, professor of German at the University of Iowa; a daughter, Rebekka Windus of Hanover, Germany; three stepdaughters, Jillian Storms of Columbia, April Hill of Baltimore and Cathi Basler of Chicago; and six grandchildren. An earlier marriage to Dr. Doris Storms ended in divorce.


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