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The Backstory

Elizabeth Fontham, MPH, DrPH

Emeritus Professor & Founding Dean, School of Public Health

Dr Elizabeth Fontham
Dr. Elizabeth Fontham is the founding dean of the LSU Health New Orleans School of Public Health, an epidemiologist and cancer researcher. Her landmark studies--the first U.S. case-control study of the increased risk tobacco smoke poses to non-smokers and a follow-up study on women who never smoked yet died of lung cancer—provided evidence that led the EPA to classify secondhand smoke as a Class A carcinogen in 1993, forever changing the way Americans live. She is the first non-physician ever elected as President of the American Cancer Society. And she founded Louisiana's only public School of Public Health. So how did a little girl born and raised in Crowley, LA reach the national stage? Read on for Elizabeth "Terry" Terrell Hobgood Fontham's backstory.

"I never in a million years thought my life would take the path it has taken," says Dr. Fontham. "I was diagnosed with polio in Crowley the year before the first polio vaccine came out, and I had to go to a hospital in Baton Rouge." She was seven years old, and her grandfather was dying of cancer back in Crowley. Her mother had to divide her time between the two.


Dr. Elizabeth Fontham

Faculty Detail

"My experience in the hospital in a ward with other kids who had polio really made me determined at a young age to be involved in medicine. It never occurred to me that it would be epidemiology because I didn't know what epidemiology was. I certainly had no concept of the importance of research. I was always thinking patient care. But as I was exposed to more over time, it was very clear to me that I really had to do something that could change things in a big picture populations sort of way. For me, I thought it could potentially have a bigger impact than just one on one."

An LSU graduate and fanatic Tigers fan, Dr. Fontham started her career at LSU Health Sciences Center as a Research Associate in the School of Medicine's Department of Pathology. Her research took her from the Andes in Columbia to the nation's capitol, with far-reaching consequences.

"To develop lung cancer as a lifetime never-smoker is something that should not happen. We know that tobacco smoke is by far and away the biggest cause of lung cancer, and non-smokers were involuntarily breathing the tobacco smoke of others."

"Our research and that of others changed public policy, and it's really changed the face of America. You don't smoke on airplanes, in classrooms, in restaurants for the most part."

The research and the laws that resulted have saved thousands of lives and not just from cancer. Her pathology colleague, Dr. Jack Strong, was the first to link cigarette smoke to heart disease. The number of lives saved from cardiovascular disease is significantly larger than from lung cancer.

In 2008, Dr. Fontham was installed as President of the American Cancer Society during its National Assembly Meeting in New York City. The ACS is the largest not-for-profit organization in this country and one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world.

"I think the reason they were moved to select someone who was not an MD was because ACS has moved more and more into areas that are clearly in the realm of public health and epidemiology. It was a remarkable opportunity. I had an opportunity to work with people from all over the world on cancer control and advocacy needed to change policies and laws. I think they were able to trust an epidemiologist and someone who has worked in the field of public health for many, many years in part because of the outstanding epidemiologists who work in the ACS research program. I It was certainly my good fortune to be the one they chose."
Dr. Fontham retired in 2013. She kept pushing back the date. She wouldn't seriously consider it until the School of Public Health achieved its accreditation, a process that was interrupted and set back by Hurricane Katrina. Yet even though she is officially retired, as an emeritus professor Terry Fontham is still a fixture on campus and in the community. She continues to contribute to the Health Sciences Center's mission, only now it's as a happy volunteer!