Two days before she was to take office as president of the American Public Health Assn., Ruth Roemer joined astronomer Carl Sagan and Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Bernard Lown in speaking out against nuclear testing and the arms race during a demonstration at the Nevada Test Site near Las Vegas.
It was so windy in the Nevada desert Sept. 30 that Roemer couldn't hold onto her notes, so she winged it, insisting to about 600 participants, "The threat of nuclear war is the No. 1 public health problem facing the world."
Last week in her office at UCLA, Roemer, 70, was no less adamant about banning nuclear tests and weapons, and spending less money for the military and more for public health, in the United States and throughout the world.
A longtime human rights activist, Roemer is the first attorney in 80 years to head the 114-year-old association.
With a membership of more than 30,000, the association is the nation's oldest, largest and most prominent organization of physicians and health professionals working in the broad field of public health. It publishes an internationally recognized journal and is politically active in a wide range of issues as diverse as tobacco advertising and interpersonal violence.
Roemer and her husband, Dr. Milton Roemer, are both professors in the UCLA School of Public Health and are internationally known public health care experts.
Dr. Philip Lee, head of the Institute for Health Policies at the University of California, San Francisco, who has known the Roemers since Lee served as U.S. assistant secretary of health in the mid-1960s, said in an interview: "She is an advocate and she's very effective. People have great respect for Ruth as a public health care professional. And she's a wonderful role model for public health in America.
And Lee added, "Milton, even more than Ruth, is a mentor to young physicians from a public health point of view. They're a great team."
Roemer, rifling through a file drawer in her desk at UCLA last week, observed that, "I believe we (as a nation) really have our priorities mixed up." She found what she was searching for to illustrate her point, a list of military expenditures.
She had just returned from chairing her first executive committee meeting at the association's offices in Washington, where the main subjects included military spending (she calculates that expenditures for health amount to only 16% of that spent on the military), international health programs ("There is no excuse for polio existing"), and AIDS (she favors more spending to find a vaccine and a public education program to eliminate prejudice against acquired immune deficiency syndrome patients).
"This will really boggle your mind," Roemer said as she pointed to various columns of figures in support of her contentions about military spending. With equal vigor, she went on to talk about AIDS, the dangers of smoking and the need for broader health insurance programs.
Wanting to Be a Lawyer
All these impassioned comments came from a woman who never intended to have a career in public health. As a young girl in Milford, Conn., Ruth Rosenbaum was going to be a lawyer.
In 1939, she was married to Milton Roemer, a pre-med student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she did her undergraduate studies and got her law degree.
The couple were married "the day Hitler marched on Poland, Sept. 1, 1939," and moved to New York City, where Milton studied medicine at New York University. He previously had received a master's degree in sociology from Cornell.
"My father was a clinical doctor," said Milton Roemer, 70, who shares offices with his wife. "He finished his training in 1906, I finished in 1940. But I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to college. I was so conscious of the Depression and life at that time. In the middle of medical training, I spent summers getting my master's in sociology. I knew then I was going into public health."
Roemer became a member of the New York Bar Assn. and practiced law in the city while her husband interned in his native New Jersey and worked as a medical officer for the New Jersey State Department of Health in the venereal disease control division. In 1943, when her husband got a job with the U.S. Public Health Service, the couple moved to Washington.
In 1949, with a small son and a baby daughter, Roemer spent a year as a housewife in Morgantown, W. Va., where her husband, as a U.S. Public Health Service office was director of the West Virginia Public Health Training Center and county health department.
Then there were stints at Yale law and medical schools for the couple, and jobs in Geneva, Switzerland, and Saskatchewan, Canada, before the Roemers returned in 1957 to Cornell, she as a research associate at the law school, he as a research professor of administrative medicine.