Public health professor is retired, but not really

Bruce Douglas

Bruce Douglas, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences, has retired six times. His latest return is to study senescence, “when all living things start to deteriorate,” he says. Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services

Considering he’ll turn 90 next July, Bruce Douglas figures he’s the oldest professor still working on campus.

Old enough to have retired six times.

“Each time something happened to bring me back,” said Douglas, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the School of Public Health.

The latest “something” came in October, a letter from public health dean Paul Brandt-Rauf inviting Douglas to develop and implement a program for the quality of life of older people.

“It’s to deal with the period of time, called senescence, when all living things (except lobsters) start to deteriorate. Senescence ends when disease sets in — like heart disease, cancer or stroke,” he said.

“We want to see Obamacare succeed. We’re interested not just in quality of life, but the political and cultural environment in which it exists.”

Another return from retirement came in 2002, when Douglas, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, became the only such specialist serving public aid patients in Lake County. He did this on a part-time basis until 2012.

He also practiced on Chicago’s West Side from 1964 to 1968, when his office burned down during the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, because I had derived so much satisfaction from taking care of all those truly needy patients,” he said.

Douglas is a disabled Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War, with hearing loss caused by repeatedly firing a rifle. In his office is a photo of himself taken in 1952, in fatigues, on Parris Island, South Carolina — lying prone and pointing an M1 rifle — captioned “The Moment My Life Changed Forever.”

“That was the day,” he said, “that I reported to the medical clinic with severe ringing in my ears, called tinnitus. It never went away.

“I’m deaf without these,” he said, pointing to his hearing aids.

Douglas grew up in Brooklyn, his father a dentist. “I didn’t really know what an oral surgeon did, but my father encouraged me to be one,” he said.

He earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton. He went to dental school at New York University, then spent two years in internship and residency in oral surgery and two more years at Columbia in a postgraduate oral surgery program. He also received a master’s in education from Columbia.

In the Navy, Douglas served two years as an oral surgeon at Parris Island and in Japan and Korea.

“Patching Marines’ faces and jaws up after they stepped on land mines was probably the most difficult part of my oral and maxillofacial surgery career,” he said.

On a Fulbright grant for study in Japan, “I became fascinated with the field of public health,” Douglas said, and subsequently got a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley.

Douglas joined UIC in 1962 as a professor in preventive medicine and oral medicine. Seven years later, as an anti-Vietnam War activist, he was elected to the state legislature.

As a representative for four years, he advocated for higher education and public health, becoming known as “the doctor in the House.”

“At that time there was no School of Public Health at UIC,” Douglas said. “I complained, and the dean of the College of Dentistry, Isaac Schour, said, ‘You’re a politician. Why don’t you start one?’”

With encouragement from Douglas, his legislative colleague Esther Saperstein introduced a bill to secure funding to study the establishment of such a school. Gov. Richard Ogilvie lent his support, and $100,000 was raised.

Douglas lives in Riverwoods with his wife, Janet, an occupational therapist before her retirement.

They have two daughters, Sarah Douglas, of New York City, who works for UN Women, running a program that helps women from Third World countries become demilitarized, and Sandy Cardona, who works for Refugee One, which helps refugees in the Chicago area.

Douglas has three children from a previous marriage: Clifford, an authority on tobacco-use prevention at the University of Michigan, Steven, a businessman in West Virginia, and Jennifer, a cosmetologist in New Jersey.

Douglas swims and “I still try to play tennis.”

As a hobby, “I have one of the pre-eminent collections of buttonhooks in the world,” numbering in the thousands, he said.

How long does he plan to continue working? “Indefinitely,” Douglas replied.

“Why not? I’m fine. I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, but then I get on my bicycle. I have arthritis, and troubles bending and walking up and down stairs. But so what?

“I have to get on with it. Everyone who is older has aches and pains.”

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