Jonathan Fielding works 70-hour weeks in a relatively obscure and overwhelming job: He is Los Angeles County’s top public health doctor.
Friends and colleagues have long praised his professional contributions to the field. But to their surprise, Fielding and his wife are now making another huge contribution: $50 million to the UCLA School of Public Health.
The gift, which was to be announced Thursday morning, is the largest single donation the school has received since its creation 50 years ago and will give it a new name: the UCLA Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health.
“This is a truly extraordinary gift,” said Linda Rosenstock, the school’s dean. “It shows that a leader who has devoted his life to public health believes in our future. He and his family have committed to this belief in an extraordinary way.”
The money comes from Fielding’s stock in a Texas-based private investment firm, Dimensional Fund Advisors, which manages assets worldwide. The school will receive the income from the stock and all profit from it if it is sold.
Fielding, 69, said he and his wife were very fortunate in their investment and made the decision to share that with the university, where he has been a faculty member for more than 30 years.
“Giving to UCLA, a great public university, to improve the public’s health was the obvious choice and really the only choice,” he said from his Brentwood home Wednesday. “This is something we think can make a difference over many generations.”
Fielding, who earns nearly $317,000 a year from the county, said that until recently he never imagined being able to make such a donation and that he had to ask philanthropist friends for guidance. The gift will be used to provide student scholarships, recruit top faculty, enhance research and improve the campus infrastructure. It will also endow a chair in population health to look at the roles housing, education and transportation play in people’s health.
The UCLA School of Public Health, with about 85 full-time faculty and 700 students, previously had an endowment of $25 million. The largest gift before now was about $5 million.
The donation — and Fielding’s unknown wealth — stunned colleagues, who thanked him for his generosity.
“I’m absolutely amazed,” said Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the California Department of Public Health, who has known Fielding for 15 years. “With his donation, he’s put an exclamation mark on his dedication to the future of public health.”
Dr. Robert Ross, president and chief executive of California Endowment, said of the gift: “Wow. Who knew?
“This is a wonderful, surprising development,” Ross said. “It sure does say something about his commitment to public service.”
Karin Fielding said she shared her husband’s commitment to public health and believed the donation would enable the School of Public Health to have an even broader reach. The couple have two sons, who are in college. In his free time, Jonathan Fielding plays golf and he and his wife collect American folk art and furniture.
Fielding, who was raised in Westchester County, N.Y., said his introduction to the field came in high school, when he spent a day shadowing the county public health director. After graduating from Williams College, he attended Harvard Medical School and interned in pediatrics in Boston. He also became board certified in preventive medicine and public health.
“So many of the problems I saw I couldn’t fix,” he said, adding that they stemmed from poverty and lack of education. “The only answer was to focus more upstream — to focus on prevention.”
He returned to Harvard for a master’s degree in public health and then enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania for an MBA. When Fielding was 32, then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis appointed him as the statewide health commissioner. While in the position, he led one of the nation’s first efforts to persuade people to stop smoking.
“He was talking about prevention and obesity long before anybody else,” said Dukakis, who teaches in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. He said Fielding’s gift is impressive and comes at a time when state support for the university has declined.
Fielding started at UCLA in 1979 and still conducts research there and teaches a course on what determines health.
In 1998, he began working for Los Angeles County as the head of public health under the Department of Health Services. “There was such an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.
When the county created a separate Department of Public Health six years ago, the Board of Supervisors appointed Fielding its first director. He is responsible for trying to reduce chronic illnesses, avoid infectious disease outbreaks and maintain the safety of the county’s food and water.
Fielding said that with the support of county supervisors, he started the county’s ABC restaurant grading system and now is extending that to the mobile food industry. He also is credited for his proactive work, starting before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, on emergency preparedness and bioterrorism and for his aggressive response to SARS and other infectious diseases.
His work isn’t limited to Los Angeles County. In 2010, he was appointed by President Obama to an advisory group on prevention and public health.
Fielding said he would continue to focus on reducing health disparities and attacking the root causes of health problems such as obesity. He recently unveiled an ad campaign on sugar in drinks and is working to encourage more exercise. “Policies make a huge difference,” he said.
Despite the long hours and daunting responsibilities, Fielding said he still enjoys the job, in large part because of his staff. “We have made a lot of progress, but we have not made enough,” he said.