Walter F. Snyder - the Legacy of a Leader in Environmental Health

By Wiant, Chris J. | Journal of Environmental Health, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Walter F. Snyder - the Legacy of a Leader in Environmental Health


Wiant, Chris J., Journal of Environmental Health


A personal reflection: It was truly an honor to be recognized at the NEHA Annual Educational Conference in Las Vegas as the recipient of the Walter E Snyder Award. The Snyder Award, established by NSF International and cosponsored by NEHA, is one of two awards presented at the AEC Presidents banquet. The sense of satisfaction that comes from making a contribution to one's profession is never greater than when the contribution is recognized by one's peers. I want to extend my thanks to all those with whom I have worked and from whom I have learned who were not able to be in Las Vegas. Many of my accomplishments, as I acknowledged when I accepted the reward, are the result of teamwork. My coworkers, other associates, and I worked together to solve problems, provide services, and represent our profession.

Since the conference in Las Vegas, I have taken the time to learn more about Walter Snyder and to read some of his speeches from the 1950s. Time has not diminished the relevance of his wisdom. I believe it would benefit us all to revisit his legacy.

Walter E Snyder was a leader in his time, but he was also a man who thought beyond his time. In 1944, with colleagues Henry Vaughan and Nathan Sinai, he founded the National Sanitation Foundation in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Their goal was to advance the field of sanitation through research and collaboration. Those principles still provide the foundation for NSF International.

Back when the nation was beginning to contemplate command-and-control regulation, Walter Snyder was thinking about how to develop consensus through the collaboration of industry, its customers, and government. He was expressing his views about communities and public health, the role of the sanitarian (or the environmental health specialist in today's terminology), the importance both of prevention and of cure for environmental health problems, and the need for both natural sciences and social sciences in public health.

In a talk presented in 1950 about sanitation and the way Americans live, Mr. Snyder expressed one of his fundamental principles about the role of government in community problem solving:

In a democracy, governments and health departments do not mold a population into a cultural pattern by directives, regardless of their technical validity. The most effective role of a public health official in influencing permanent environmental changes is that of a democratic leader who helps community and neighborhood groups to study their problems and seek a solution which they can, in turn, carry out.

The sanitarian's job, according to Walter Snyder, was to enforce laws and regulations and to educate the public about environmental health and protection. That education would enable communities to make good choices that would protect the quality of the life they chose. Specifically, he believed that "when and if we ever have a clean city in the United States, it will be because the people of that city want it to be clean." For many years, environmental health professionals have struggled to win compliance with applicable rules and regulations. It was Snyder's view that the definition of clean would be developed by consensus of all the parties who had a stake in the outcome. In this case, the parties would include citizens, businesses, and government agencies. Mr. Snyder's writings suggest he recognized that while command and control have value, it is also useful to encourage voluntary action that demonstrates environmental responsibility. For the work of the environmental health professional to be successful, the community has to value public health protection and be willing to commit resources to achieve that goal.

It has only been recently that environmental regulators and businesses have embraced the concept of environmental leadership while reducing emphasis on the command-and-control approach to compliance. Walter Snyder and his colleagues would support this evolutionary step. …

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