University of Minnesota

John Cassel, MD

1921 — 1976

John Cassel of Johannesburg, South Africa, was educated at the University of Witwatersrand and joined the Institute of Family and Community Health, headed by Sidney Kark, in Durban, in 1947. This institute was oriented toward the social and cultural aspects of health and encouraged communities to participate in their health care. He headed the rural Pholela center among the Zulus where he served until 1953 when, sensing the fate of social medicine under the new Afrikaans administration, he enrolled for an MPH at theUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He remained on the faculty and was named head of epidemiology in 1958.

Cassel brought his social medicine ideas and rural health experience to North Carolina, where he promulgated the concepts and study methods of social epidemiology, hypothesizing “stress factors” of rapid social change as disease inducing and social networks as protective of disease. He gathered a faculty of social and behavioral investigators to question, explore theories and methods, and teach the biological and cultural determinants of health in the rural south. He was influential in establishing and analyzing results of the pioneering Evans County, Georgia cohort study, the first to examine total communities of Blacks and Whites. Several of his studies focused on cardiovascular disease risk factors and the genesis of hypertension and coronary disease.

Cassel summarized his ideas on culture and health in the cause and prevention of illness in the Wade Hampton Frost Lecture of 1976, the year of his terminal illness. (HB)


Cassel, JC (1976). The contribution of the social environment to host resistance. The Fourth Wade Hampton Frost Lecture. Am J Epidemiol, 104, 107-123.

Tyroler, HA, Cassel J (1964). Health consequences of culture change. J Chronic Dis, 17, 167-177.

Brown, TM, Fee, E (2002). Sidney Kark and John Cassel: Social Medicine Pioneers and South African Emigres. American Journal of Public Health, 92, 1744-1745.