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Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield, founding director of the SDSU Graduate School of Public Health (1984 photo) Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield, founding director of the SDSU Graduate School of Public Health (1984 photo)

In Memoriam: F. Douglas Scutchfield

The founding director of the Graduate School of Public Health launched SDSU’s enduring role in community health in San Diego.
By Jeff Ristine

Dr. F. Douglas Scutchfield, who worked in community health projects in the coal camps of Appalachia before becoming founding director of San Diego State University’s Graduate School of Public Health, has died. He was 80.

Scutchfield also became founding dean of the University of Kentucky School of Public Health after leaving SDSU, performing the rare and possibly singular feat of starting two schools of public health in the U.S.  In 2019, he received the American Public Health Association’s Sedgwick Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service in Public Health, its oldest and most prestigious honor.

Scutchfield died May 23 in Kentucky after being hospitalized with pneumonia, the University of Kentucky announced.

A physically towering figure, Scutchfield went by “Scutch” to friends and even made it the username of his professional email address.

Conceived by the dean of the graduate division, James Cobble, in consultation with nationally renowned public health expert John Hanlon, the Graduate School of Public Health at SDSU was launched in 1980 and accepted its first master’s degree students in fall 1981.

Scutchfield was recruited to SDSU in 1979 by then-president Thomas Day, who had secured approval from the state Legislature — against opposition from UCLA —  for what Day later described as the first new school of public health in the U.S. in decades and one of only about two dozen at the time.

Scutchfield “literally stood our school up and recruited top names across the country,” said Eyal Oren, interim director of what is now simply the School of Public Health, renamed in 2018 to reflect what had evolved into a broader scope.

Early years

In the school’s first year Scutchfield established programs in health services administration, maternal and child health, occupational and environmental health, and epidemiology. A fifth division, health promotion, was added the following year, and the school achieved full national accreditation in 1985.

“To start a new educational venture from scratch is an unusual thing in higher education and represents an opportunity to put new ideas and directions in public health education into action,” Scutchfield said at the time.

One of his first proteges, Michael Peddecord, said the opportunity to help create the school with “an enthusiastic young director was irresistible.”

“The first few years, with limited faculty, were challenging, especially given the imperatives to prove that public health faculty could attract substantial external funding for their research,” said Peddecord, now a professor emeritus. “Always the cheerleader, first Scutch would assign me to teach a new class that was well out of my comfort zone, then assure me that I only had to ‘keep a day ahead of the students.’”

“While the administration was a full-time endeavor, Scutch insisted on teaching both students in core classes as well as preventive medicine residents,” Peddecord said. “He understood that in the final analysis, well-educated graduates who became leaders in their fields were the school’s most enduring legacy.”

The school’s graduate program recently was ranked No. 19 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Community ties

Scutchfield established what became SDSU’s enduring ties with the county health department, which includes a leading role in its COVID-19 prevention and mitigation efforts.

He forged SDSU’s relationship with the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, including a joint doctoral program in epidemiology established in 1990 and a joint residency program for physicians in preventive medicine and public health. He also taught at the University of California, Irvine, for five years as a visiting professor.

Articles in The Daily Aztec reported that Scutchfield spoke out in opposition to Proposition 64 of 1986, an unsuccessful California ballot initiative to require mandatory reporting of AIDS, calling it a “panic” reaction to the disease.

Scutchfield left SDSU in 1995, returning to his native state and the University of Kentucky, where he had earned his M.D. in 1966 in its College of Medicine.

Hala Madanat, currently interim vice president for research at SDSU, said she had not met Scutchfield when she was named director of the school in 2016. When she assumed the role, however, “Scutch would always provide me with his time to advise and support the SPH.

“He was an incredibly smart and genuine person who wanted SDSU SPH to succeed,” said Madanat. “Personally, I am indebted to him for the support he provided me during my time as director.”

Scutchfield was born in Wheelwright, Kentucky, a coal company town with one way in and out of the city and a present-day population under 1,000.

His interest in public health and preventive medicine developed during his earlier years in Kentucky, and through additional training at Northwestern University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He was one of the founders of the College of Community Health Science at the University of Alabama, where he was teaching family medicine and community medicine when SDSU recruited him.

Throughout his public health career, Scutchfield worked in coal camps of Appalachia, farms of the Black Belt of Alabama, and the barrios of both San Diego and Tijuana.

He was editor of numerous academic journals and was founding co-editor of the Journal of Appalachian Health. The Sedgwick Memorial Medal is only one entry in a list of awards and distinctions that fill a full page of his curriculum vitae.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Phyllis; a son, Alex; a brother, Scott; and two grandchildren. Plans are pending for a celebration of his life at a service in Kentucky.

SDSU is establishing a scholarship in memory of Scutchfield for SDSU public health students. Donations may be made at
John Elder, distinguished professor emeritus in the Division of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at SDSU, contributed to this article.