In 2007, Marylanders were shocked by the tragic death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year-old in southern Prince George’s County who died from an infection from an abscessed tooth that spread to his brain. It was the same year that the School of Public Health launched, and Alice Horowitz wanted to ensure that no other child died this way.
“When he died, we had already known for decades how to prevent tooth decay,” Horowitz said. “His mom didn’t have this information and the tools to prevent it.”
Horowitz, who retires from the University of Maryland this summer at age 89, has been a leading advocate and researcher in dental public health and in health literacy efforts. One of her crowning achievements was establishing SPH’s Herschel S. Horowitz Center for Health Literacy (HCHL), named after her late husband, an internationally renowned dental epidemiologist, educator and public health advocate.
The center has been a cornerstone of SPH’s mission from the start. “I knew how important health literacy is to public health, and that there was no other center like it,” said Robert S. Gold, SPH’s founding dean and Horowitz’s doctoral adviser. “I knew it would be a signature program that only we had."
Trained as a health educator, with an M.A. in education from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in health education from UMD, Horowitz says she was encouraging health literacy before she even knew the term. “Health literacy involves the understanding of why you have to do this,” Horowitz said. “It used to be that physicians and dentists would just say, ‘Do as I say, you don’t question.’ But if you really want to have a cooperative patient and a healthy person, they need to understand.”
Horowitz, formerly a senior scientist at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Health of the National Institutes of Health, had already been leading oral health literacy initiatives at the federal level by the time SPH was founded. She served on the first U.S. Department of Health and Human Services committee on health literacy in the mid-1990s, and was one of the lead authors of the oral health section for Healthy People 2010, the science-based guide drafted every 10 years to inform national health promotion and disease prevention efforts.
After Driver’s death, Horowitz began researching what Marylanders knew about preventing dental complications and how effectively dentists communicated that information to their patients, helping to accelerate the statewide approach to improving oral health literacy. With Dushanka Kleinman, associate dean of research and principal associate dean in SPH, Horowitz led policy and education initiatives geared toward education on preventable tooth decay.
And Horowitz’s legacy will continue to grow, as recent state legislation positions the HCHL as Maryland’s Consumer Health Information Hub, helping state and local agencies provide the best and most useful health information to residents using plain language.
“This new legislation … is going to be pivotal to new directions for the center,” said Horowitz, reflecting on the precedent set by Maryland as the first state to designate such a hub. “The sky’s the limit.”
Those interested in honoring Dr. Horowitz’s legacy at the University of Maryland can make a donation in her honor to the HCHL’s new Doctoral Recruiting Current-Use Graduate Fellowship in Health Literacy.
If you would like to learn more, please contact Jennifer Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Horowitz Center for Health Literacy
- Department of Behavioral and Community Health