Traveling Full Circle

Far-flung Locales Spurred Durkin's Evolving Career—from Anthropology to Epidemiology to Population Health
October 23, 2023
VOL 25 NO 3

On paper, Maureen Durkin, PhD, DrPH, might appear to have the perfect credentials to be perceived as a stereotypical “ivory-tower” academic. Notwithstanding her two doctorates — one in anthropology from University of Wisconsin–Madison and the other in epidemiology from Columbia University — her life’s work has proved to be anything but esoteric.

Maureen Durkin
Maureen Durkin, PhD, DrPH

Over the past four decades, she has demonstrated an unrelenting passion for readily applying her vast knowledge about different cultures and the varying preponderance of health maladies among children. Her efforts have played a significant role in reducing the number of young children around the world who die from largely preventable diseases or causes.

A 20-year faculty member of the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s (SMPH) Department of Population Health Sciences, for which she has served as chair since 2017, Durkin fell in love with anthropology as an undergraduate at UW–Madison during the 1970s. Working on her dissertation while living in Nepal in the early 1980s, Durkin’s academic passion began gravitating toward epidemiology. Learning about the incidence of disease among certain populations evolved as a natural sequel to her anthropology work that focused on cultural differences.

“Once I learned what epidemiology was and saw for myself so many children needlessly dying or getting sick in Nepal and, later, in other countries, I decided to dedicate myself to putting what I learned into action so lives can be saved and improved,” Durkin recalls. “It is not enough to collect the data and leave. I felt I had to immerse myself and do something to prevent unnecessary infant and child mortality. For me, that is the most satisfying outcome.”

A Journey of International Study

Before long, Durkin found herself working in a number of low- and middle-income countries — including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Jamaica, and the Philippines — to analyze disparities in developmental disabilities among young children. Very little medical information about these children was available, and prevention and treatment options for their conditions were largely nonexistent.

When she returned to the United States, Durkin applied that same passion toward the prevention of childhood injuries. While pursuing her epidemiological studies at Columbia University, Durkin worked with officials from the New York City Health Department to develop an injury-surveillance program to monitor the epidemiology of fatal and non-fatal injuries to children. In New York, she worked closely with clinicians and leaders, including the late Charlotte Spiegel, a civic leader who played an instrumental role in requiring window guards in apartments that were homes for children ages 10 and under. Before the requirement was enacted, more than 200 children per year had fallen out of windows. Fortunately, such tragedies are now a rare occurrence.

Another of Durkin’s projects, which began with a study of Harlem playground injuries — many resulting from neglected broken glass and equipment — resulted in substantial safety improvements and improved playground maintenance.

After two decades in New York, Durkin and her husband, B. Jack J. Longley, MD ’79, returned to their hometown of Madison in 2003, when they both accepted faculty positions at SMPH — she in the Department of Population Health Sciences and he in the Department of Dermatology.

Maureen Durkin and her husband, B. Jack J. Longley
Maureen Durkin, PhD, DrPH, and her husband, B. Jack J. Longley, MD ’79

Over the past 20 years, Durkin has focused on the prevalence of autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The more we study autism, the more it seems to be increasing,” Durkin notes. “For years, we have seen a much higher prevalence among children from affluent white families. Lately, we have witnessed similar upticks in autism among children who are lower income and from minoritized groups.”

The Impact of Population Health Sciences

Population Health Sciences at UW–Madison traces its roots back to 1903, when the State Legislature established what is now known as the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH). Its purpose is “to provide benefits from the university’s scientific capabilities and promote public health.” In 1959, the WSLH became part of the newly constituted SMPH Department of Preventive Medicine; in 2001, that department changed its name to the Department of Population Health Sciences. Given the field’s inherent multidisciplinary makeup, several of its 30 faculty members have joint appointments in other UW–Madison departments and schools, such as the SMPH Department of Biostatistics and Medical Informatics and Department of Medicine, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“We were the first university in the United States to establish a Department of Population Health Sciences,” Durkin says. “Now, many if not most academic medical centers have such a department. Many of our faculty members have national reputations and are called upon by state and federal policymakers.”

For example, Emeritus Professor David Kindig, MD, PhD, served as a high-level government advisor during the Clinton administration’s effort to enact national health care legislation. Many of the population health principles for which Kindig advocated became law when the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) took effect in 2014.

New Chair Role in 2017

Durkin’s departmental leadership role commenced in 2017, following the departure of the former chair, F. Javier Nieto, MD, PhD, MPH, MHS, who became dean of the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

“Maureen never sought the job of chair, but when Dean Robert Golden asked her to step up at a time of need, she accepted out of a sense of service to the department and the school,” says Professor Emeritus Patrick Remington, MD ‘81, MPH, who was SMPH’s inaugural associate dean for public health, as well as a former colleague and lifelong friend of Durkin’s. “She has been an extremely collegial leader whose unwritten mantra is, ‘What can I do to help you succeed?’”

After a distinguished career of pursuing her own work, Durkin felt the time seemed right to start focusing more of her efforts on supporting the academic pursuits of others.

“It’s very gratifying to work with such wonderful faculty members in this department and help them achieve their goals,” Durkin says.

Deep Roots in Madison

Avid bicyclists, parents of four, and grandparents of three (soon to be four), Durkin and Longley live in the same home where Durkin grew up in Madison’s University Heights neighborhood.

“Jack and I have a lot of roots here,” Durkin says. “He is a fifth-generation Madisonian, and his great-grandfather was the first professor of animal husbandry on campus in the 1800s. Notwithstanding all of the places we have been fortunate to see around the world, we love Madison and being so closely tied to the community.”