Dr. Ellen Alkon, professor emeritus in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health whose career as a public health specialist mirrored the growth of the discipline in the latter half of the 20th century, has died. She was 84.
“Ellen was the consummate public health practitioner and teacher,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Fielding School distinguished professor of health policy and management. “She had so much experience as a public health leader that she freely shared with her students. If the politicians with whom she interacted had listened to her criticize the inadequacy of our public health infrastructure, our state and local departments of public health would have been better prepared to respond to COVID-19.”
A pediatrician by training with a lifelong passion for public health, Alkon received her bachelor’s degree in 1955 from Stanford University, her medical degree in 1961 from the University of Chicago (now the Pritzker School of Medicine) and her master of public health degree in maternal health in 1968 from UC Berkeley. A native Angeleno, she attended San Fernando High School, near what is now Olive View Medical Center, where her parents were both on the medical staff.
She held leadership positions in three local health departments. In Maryland she served as chief of school health for Anne Arundel County. In Minnesota she was director of maternal and child health and commissioner of health for the city of Minneapolis. From 1980 until her retirement, she served in the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, holding the positions of medical director for public health and chief executive officer of the Long Beach Comprehensive Health Center, medical director of Public Health (West Area) and director of Public Health Education for Physicians.
A great believer in the value of education, Alkon returned to work with newly minted physicians after her retirement and also continued to co-teach her course in local health administration. She was a strong believer in using her academic knowledge to make tangible improvements in governments’ service to the people, especially children. In 1975, working long hours and with children at home, she still found time to testify before Congress on the importance of the brand-new Women, Infants and Children program, aimed at improving the health of mothers and young children.
Her work to improve public health continued decades later, as exemplified in her advocacy for the detailed labeling of soda. In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Dr. Alkon wrote, “Many people do not realize that drinking sugar places unique demands on the body. One step in fighting obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease is informing the public. Sweetened beverages need a warning label, just as cigarettes need a warning label.”
Alkon died Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Texas, where she had moved after retirement. She taught as an adjunct professor at the Fielding School for more than two decades, including the department’s course “Issues and Problems in Local Health Administration.”
“In a department focused on medical economics and medical care, Ellen was one of few faculty with broad knowledge and experience in the practice of governmental public health,” Fielding said. “She was quiet and unassuming, but always available to students who had questions about her courses or were considering a career in public health. And she was a role model for female physicians who wanted to make a difference in prevention at the population level.”