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Harvard awards Wits professor for building advanced research capability in rural SA

- Wits University

Professor Stephen Tollman has received the 2023 Alumni Award of Merit from Harvard University.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health awarded Professor Stephen Tollman for his outstanding contributions to population-based health research across Africa.

Wits Prof. Steve Tollman on right receives the Harvard Alumni Merit Award from Dr Bernard Lee Chair of Alumni Awards Committee

Tollman is the founder and Director of the South African Medical Research Council/Wits University Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt), integral to the work of the Wits Rural Campus. Here he leads a world-class Health and Demographic Surveillance System (HDSS)  that supports multidisciplinary research spanning the life course.

At Wits University, he is a Research Professor in the School of Public Health and Head of the School’s Health and Population Division in the Faculty of Health Sciences. He is a faculty member of the Harvard Center for Population & Development Studies.

Tollman received the award at Harvard's Alumni Weekend, on Friday, 29 September 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Alumni Merit Award is the highest honour bestowed on alumni of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health by their peers.

Jane Kim, Interim Dean of the Faculty and Dean for Academic Affairs at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, wrote to Tollman: "This award is a well-deserved recognition of your accomplishments in public health and the important contributions you have made to health and socio-demographic surveillance and advancing research capacity in sub-Saharan Africa. I commend you on your impactful and timely work."

An alumnus of Harvard, Oxford, and Wits universities, Tollman studied public health at Harvard; philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar; and medicine at Wits. He said: “Such recognition through the Harvard Chan School Alumni Award is an exceptional honour."

Agincourt was established after Tollman, with Kathleen Kahn, returned to South Africa in the early 1990s. He moved to rural Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga Province, confronting pervasive challenges of poverty and inequality coupled with complex health transitions. Over decades, he has built a globally leading research institution, bringing the best science to bear where needs are greatest.

The versatile research platform – covering a ‘whole population cohort’ of some 120, 000 people living in over 30 rural villages – supports diverse observational and interventional studies, including policy evaluations investigating critical transitions along the life course, their implications, and context-appropriate responses.

Tollman was a founder and elected first Board Chair of INDEPTH (2002-2006), an exceptional research network led from the Global South. As principal scientist he provided strategic direction overall, notably to multicentre efforts in cause-of-death, ageing, migration and health, and cardiovascular research. INDEPTH is the International Network for the Demographic Evaluation of Populations and Their Health.