David R. Williams is the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Professor of African and African American Studies and of Sociology at Harvard University. His first 6 years as a faculty member were at Yale University where he held appointments in both Sociology and Public Health. The next 14 years were at the University of Michigan where he was the Harold Cruse Collegiate Professor of Sociology, a Senior Research Scientist at the Institute of Social Research and a Professor of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health. Dr. Williams is a graduate of the University of the Southern Caribbean, Andrews University, Loma Linda University, and the University of Michigan.
He is internationally recognized as a leading social scientist focused on social influences on health and he has been invited to keynote scientific conferences in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Australia, South America and across the United States. His research has enhanced our understanding of the complex ways in which race, racism, socioeconomic status, stress, health behaviors and religious involvement can affect physical and mental health. The Everyday Discrimination scale that he developed is currently one of the most widely used measures to assess perceived discrimination in health studies. He is the author of more than 425 scholarly papers in scientific journals and edited collections and his research has appeared in leading journals in sociology, psychology, medicine, public health and epidemiology. He has served on the editorial board of 12 scientific journals and as a reviewer for over 70 journals. According to ISI Essential Science Indicators, he was one of the Top 10 Most Cited Researchers in the Social Sciences during the decade 1995 to 2005. The Journal of Black Issues in Higher Education ranked him as the Most Cited Black Scholar in the Social Sciences in 2008. And Thomson Reuters ranked him, in 2014, as one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds based on his scientific articles published between 2002 and 2012.
With funding from the National Institutes of Health and the sponsorship of the World Health Organization, Dr. Williams directed the South African Stress and Health Study, the first nationally representative study of the prevalence and correlates of psychiatric disorders in sub-Sahara Africa. This study assessed the effects of HIV/AIDS, exposure to racial discrimination and torture during apartheid, on the health of the South African population. He was also a key member of the team that conducted the National Study of American Life, the largest study of mental health disorders in the African American population in the U.S. and the first health study to include a large national sample of Blacks of Caribbean ancestry. He also served as the director of the Lung Cancer Disparities Center at Harvard, one of 10 Centers for Population Health and Health Disparities funded by the National Institutes of Health.
He has received numerous honors and awards. In 2001, he was elected to the National Academy of Medicine (formerly Institute of Medicine) and in 2007 to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2004, he received one of the inaugural Decade of Behavior Research Awards and in 2011, he was the first non-white scholar to receive the Leo G. Reeder Award from the American Sociological Association. Dr. Williams also received the Stephen Smith Award for Distinguished Contributions in Public Health from the New York Academy of Medicine , the Leonard I. Pearlin Award for Distinguished Contributions to the Sociological Study of Mental Health from the American Sociological Association and a Distinguished Leadership in Psychology Award from the American Psychological Association. In 2014, he was ranked as one of the Top Blacks in Healthcare by BlackDoctor.org and Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions.
Dr. Williams has been involved in the development of health policy at the national level in the U.S. He has served on the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics and on eight committees for the National Academy of Medicine including the Committee that prepared the Unequal Treatment report. He has held elected and appointed positions in professional organizations, such as the American Sociological Association, the American Public Health Association, and Academy Health. He also served as a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s Research Network on Socioeconomic Status and Health. Dr. Williams has also played a visible, national leadership role in raising awareness levels of the problem of health disparities and identifying interventions to address them. He served as the staff director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America. This national, independent and nonpartisan health commission was focused on identifying evidence-based non-medical strategies that can improve the health of all Americans and reduce racial and socioeconomic gaps in health.
Dr. Williams has appeared on national television, including ABC’s Evening News, CNN, PBS, the Katie Couric Show, Al Jazeera, the Hope Channel, C-SPAN and the Discovery Channel. His TED Talk, released in 2017, has over 1.1 million views. His research has been featured or he has been quoted in the national print media including the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Essence, Jet and USA Today. He was also a key scientific advisor to the award-winning PBS film series, Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?
CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE
Contribution 1: Race, Socioeconomic Status (SES) and Health
Some of Williams early research focused on how health varied by SES. The conventional scientific wisdom at that time was that racial inequities in health were solely a function of SES. Some of his early publications documented the critical role that SES plays as a determinant of health and the large racial differences in SES. However, his research also showed that race and SES are related but not interchangeable social factors and combine in complex ways to affect health status and risk factors for health. This research has documented large racial differences in health, at every level of SES and the non-equivalence of SES factors across race. His research has also contributed to understanding how the social environment gets under the skin to affect underlying disease processes. This includes research on how coping resources and strategies (e.g., social relationships, religiosity, health behaviors, psychological attributes) can modify the effects of stress on health and on how interactions between biological susceptibilities and exposures in the psychosocial and physical environment can affect SES and racial/ethnic inequalities. He has also done conceptual and empirical research on intersectionality and health – the science of understanding how multiple social statuses combine to affect risk factors for health and health status. Some of his recent publications have also focused on identifying the conditions under which interventions on the social factors linked to where individuals live, learn, work, play and worship can improve health and reduce inequities in health.
- Williams, D.R. “Socioeconomic Differentials in Health: A Review and Redirection.” Social Psychology Quarterly, 53:81-99, 1990.
- Williams, D.R. and Collins, C. “U.S. Socioeconomic and Racial Differences in Health: Patterns and Explanations.” Annual Review of Sociology. 21:349-386, 1995.
- Williams, D.R. “The Health of U.S. Racial and Ethnic Populations.” Journal of Gerontology: Series B. 60B (Special Issue II): 53-62, 2005. PMID: 16251591
- Krieger, N., Williams, D.R., and Moss, N. “Measuring Social Class in U.S. Public Health Research: Concepts, Methodologies, and Guidelines.” Annual Review of Public Health. 18:341-37, 1997.
- Williams, D.R., Mohammed, S.A., Leavell, J., Collins, C. "Race, Socioeconomic Status and Health: Complexities, Ongoing Challenges and Research Opportunities.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1186: 69-101, 2010. PMID: 20201869. PMCID: PMC3442603
Contribution 2: Racism and Health
Social scientists had long speculated that racism had adverse effects on the health of racially stigmatized populations, but how these processes occurred was not well understood. Over the last two decades, Dr. Williams has developed a strong record of theoretical analysis and empirical research focused on understanding the multiple ways in which racism can affect health. His research has outlined the conditions under which discrimination at both the interpersonal and the institutional level can adversely affect health and the complex ways in which economic and non-economic forms of discrimination relate to each other and combine with socio-economic position and other risk factors and resources to affect health. This has included conceptual and empirical analyses of the contribution of residential segregation to racial inequities in health. Williams has also devoted considerable attention to documenting how interpersonal experiences of discrimination are a type of stressful life experience that can adversely affect health and can combine with traditional measures of psychosocial stress to account for residual racial differences in health after statistical adjustment for income and education. This has included developmental work on conceptualizing and operationalizing acute and chronic indicators of perceived discrimination. He also developed a scale to assess vigilance linked to the threat of discrimination. His recent publications have also described the range of interventions that can reduce the negative effects of interpersonal and institutional racism on health and the foundational strategies that are necessary to empower low SES and minority individuals and populations to address underlying social barriers that impede effective interventions to improve health.
- Williams, D.R. “Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Health: The Added Effects of Racism and Discrimination.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. 896:173-188, 1999. PMID: 10681897.
- Williams, D.R., Yu, Y., Jackson, J.S., and Anderson, N.B. “Racial Differences in Physical and Mental Health: Socioeconomic Status, Stress, and Discrimination.” Journal of Health Psychology. 2(3):335-351, 1997.
- Williams, D. R., & Collins, C. “Racial Residential Segregation: A Fundamental Cause of Racial Disparities in Health. Public Health Reports”, 116(September/October), 404-416. 2001.
- Williams, D. R., & Mohammed, S. A. “Discrimination and Racial Disparities in Health: Evidence and Needed Research. Journal of Behavioral Medicine”, 32, 20-47, 2009. PMID:19030981. PMCID: PMC2821669.
- Williams, D.R., Mohammed, S.A. “Racism and Health I: Pathways and Scientific Evidence.” American Behavioral Scientist. 57(8) 1152–1173, 2013. PMID: 24347666 PMCID: PMC3863357
Contribution 3: Stress and Health
Williams has also been interested in the ways in which stressful exposures at the level of the individual, household and neighborhood can combine with individual characteristics to affect health risks. He has been involved with the development of comprehensive but brief batteries of acute and chronic stressors for use in large epidemiological studies. His analyses of data from the American Changing Lives Study (ACL), the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study, the Chicago Community Adult Health Study (CCAHS), and the Women’s Health Study (WHS) suggest that there is substantial variation in stress by social status and cumulative measures of stressors predict elevated risk for multiple health outcomes. He has also investigated how coping resources and strategies ranging from social support and religiosity to psychological attributes and health practices can modify the effects of stress on health. Williams has also been leading a Working Group on the Social Precipitants of Toxic Stress at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child that is seeking to identify a comprehensive but brief measure of the most critical stressors and resilience resources that play a role in determining the levels and impact of toxic stress in early childhood. The ultimate goal of this research on the social and behavioral triggers of toxic stress is to generate novel interventions to reduce the development of early childhood stressors and ameliorate their adverse consequences for health.
- Lantz, P.M., House, J.S., Mero, R.P., and Williams, D.R. “Stress, Life Events and Socioeconomic Disparities in Health: Results from the Americans’ Changing Lives Study.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 46(3):274-288, 2005. PMID: 16259149
- Slopen, N., Lewis, T.T., Gruenewald, T.L., Mujahid, M.S., Ryff, C.D, Albert, M.A., Williams, D.R. “Early Life Adversity and Inflammation in African Americans and Whites in the Midlife in the United States Survey.” Psychosomatic Medicine, 72:694-701, 2010. PMID: 20595419. PMCID: PMC2939196.
- Sternthal, M., Slopen, N., Williams, D.R. “Racial Disparities in Health: How Much Does Stress Really Matter?” Du Bois Review 8(1): 95-113, 2011. PMCID: PMC3468327.
- Slopen, N., Dutra, L., Williams, D. R., Mujahid, M., Lewis, T. T., Bennett, G. G., Ryff, C., Albert, M. A. "Psychosocial Stressors and Cigarette Smoking Among African American Adults in Mid-life.” Nicotine & Tobacco Research 14(10), 1161-1169, 2012. PMID: 22367977. PMCID: PMC3457711.
- Albert, M. A., Slopen, N., Williams, D.R. “Cumulative Psychological Stress and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: A Focused Review with Consideration of Black-White Disparities.” Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports, 7(5), 318-325, 2013. PMCID NA.
Contribution 4: Social Influences on Mental Health
Dr. Williams research has shed important new light on variations in mental disorders by race, SES, immigrant status and other markers of social mobility and marginalization. His research has also illuminated some of the ways in which psychosocial factors relate to each other and combine to affect mental health risk. Along with Dr. James S Jackson and other colleagues at the University of Michigan, he helped to direct the National Study of American Life, the largest study of mental health disorders in the black population in the U.S. and the first mental health study to include a large national sample of Blacks of Caribbean ancestry. His research has documented ethnic variations among blacks in mental health status, marked declines in the mental health of Caribbean Blacks with increasing length of stay and generational status in the U.S., and markedly elevated mental health risks for black Caribbean males. With funding from the National Institutes of Health and the sponsorship of the World Health Organization, Dr Williams directed the South African Stress and Health Study, the first nationally representative study of the prevalence and correlates of psychiatric disorders in sub-Sahara Africa. With funding from the National Institutes of Health and the sponsorship of the World Health Organization, Williams also directed the South African Stress and Health Study (SASH), the first nationally representative study of the prevalence and correlates of psychiatric disorders in sub-Sahara Africa. His research has provided a previously unavailable glimpse of the social distribution of psychiatric disorders in South Africa and the association between psychiatric disorders and exposure to early childhood adversity, HIV/AIDS, trauma, torture during apartheid, discrimination, and other stressors.
- Williams, D.R., Haile, R., Gonzalez, H., Neighbors, H., Baser, R., and Jackson, J.S., “The Mental Health of Black Caribbean Immigrants: Results from the National Survey of American Life (NSAL).” American Journal of Public Health, 97(1):57-59, 2007. PMID: 17138909. PMCID: PMC1716238.
- Williams, D.R., Jackson, J., González, H.M., Neighbors, H., Nesse, R., Abelson, J.M., and Sweetman, J. “Prevalence and Distribution of Major Depressive Disorder in African Americans, Caribbean Blacks, and Non-Hispanic Whites.” Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(3):305-315, 2007. PMID: 17339519.
- Miranda, J., McGuire, T., Williams, D.R., and Wang, P. “Mental Health in the Context of Health Disparities”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 165:(9)1102-1108, 2008. PMID: 18765491. PMCID NA.
- Williams, D.R., Herman, A., Stein, D.J., Heeringa, S.G., Jackson, P.B., Moomal, H., Kessler, R.C., “Twelve-month mental disorders in South Africa: prevalence, service use and demographic correlates in the population-based South African Stress and Health Study.” Psychological Medicine, 38: 211-220, 2008. PMID:17903333. PMCID: PMC2718686
Contribution 5: Religious Involvement and Health
Religious beliefs and behavior are commonplace in the general population but the ways in which they can affect health has been neglected. Williams has done foundational research on the measurement of the religious variable in epidemiological studies and documented that some aspects of religious involvement (e.g. attendance) can enhance health and reduce the adverse effects of stress on health, while other aspects of religious involvement (e.g. negative religious coping) can adversely affect health. He and his colleagues have also found that the clergy and religious institutions can serve both as a bridge and a barrier to formal mental health treatment. He also directed the first national study of the association between forgiveness and health and this research has examined the multidimensional nature of forgiveness and the conditions under which various aspects have health consequences.
- Williams, D.R., Larson, D., Buckler, R., Heckmann, R., Pyle, C. “Religion and Psychological Distress in a Community Sample.” Social Science and Medicine 32:1257-1262, 1991.
- Toussaint, L.L., Williams, D.R., Musick, M.A., Everson, S.A., “Forgiveness and Health: Age Differences in a U.S. Probability Sample”. Journal of Adult Development. 8(4):249-257, 2001.
- Idler, E.L., Musick, M.A., Ellison, C.G., George, L.K., Krause, N., Ory, M.G., Pargament, K.I., Powell, L.H., Underwood, L.G., Williams, D.R. “Measuring Multiple Dimensions of Religion and Spirituality for Health Research: Conceptual Background and Findings from the 1998 General Social Survey.” Research on Aging 25(4): 327-35, 2003.
- Musick, M.A., House, J.S., and Williams, D.R. “Attendance at Religious Services and Mortality in a National Sample.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 45(2): 198-213, 2004.
- Williams, D.R., and Sternthal, M. “Spirituality, Religion and Health: Evidence and Research Directions.” Medical Journal of Australia, 186 (10 Suppl): S47-S50, 2007.