William J. Bicknell died June 5, 2012, at his home in Marshfield, Mass., at age 75.
Bicknell was the founder and chair emeritus of the Boston University School of Public Health Department of International Health. He held a dual appointment at the BU School of Medicine as a professor and director of international health programs in the Department of Family Medicine.
During a varied career that spanned five decades and merged disciplines of practice and policy, Bicknell held posts as the first medical director of the Job Corps, Massachusetts Commissioner of Public Health, acting director of the Neighborhood Health Center Program for the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, and medical director of health and retirement funds for the United Mine Workers of America.
In the months after his diagnosis, Bicknell detailed his fight with metastatic lung cancer with methodical precision in blog updates and in a final lecture he gave last month at the BU Medical Campus. Titled Lessons Learned from a Life in Public Health, the lecture was a no-holds-barred personal recap of his efforts to advance public health in 62 countries.
Bicknell devoted the last years of his life to strengthening the work of the Lesotho-Boston Health Alliance, which he cofounded a decade ago. The goal of the alliance is to improve Lesotho’s medical capacity by strengthening hospitals and establishing a family medicine residency program to help the impoverished country retain physicians.
Born and raised in Woburn, Mass., Bicknell earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Johns Hopkins University in 1958. After graduating from Duke University School of Medicine in 1963, he joined the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and was named senior physician for Peace Corps volunteers in Ethiopia. While there, he also worked in local hospitals and was exposed to a level of illness and suffering that presaged his shift to public health.
Several years after returning from Ethiopia, Bicknell earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. After coming to Boston University in 1978, he focused on establishing the curriculum for BU’s nascent Department of International Health and later established the Center for International Health, which was eventually expanded into the current Center for Global Health & Development.