health care reform

Thomas Jefferson:
no happiness without health

By Andre J. Nahmias, Emeritus Professor of Pediatrics

Vol. 12 No.2
Spring 2010

Return to Contents

The Well Being
Health care reform examined around the university

Health Care Reform
Key provisions from the Accountable Care Act

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
Opportunity and uncertainty for academic health centers

"Among the most immediate challenges we face . . . is our communication efforts with the American public: we need to keep everyone informed about what the new law does and doesn't do, and how it will work for them."

"I'm a great believer that what medicine does best is to think about multiple causes for complex outcomes. And much of what I"ve heard over the last couple of years both in the medical science, sadly, and also in the political realm is exactly the opposite."

Ahead of the Curve
Challenging conventions with predictive health

Broadening our Lenses
Ethical reflections on health care reform

Thomas Jefferson: No Happiness Without Health

Cost Control and Health Care Reform
Defusing a fiscal time bomb

The Affordable Care Act
Will the bill improve coordination of care in the U.S.?

Health Reform Law and its Impact on Physical Therapists
Value across the spectrum of care

Placing Addiction in Historical Perspective
Health care reform and the limits of abstinence policies

Further Reading


Nearly a decade ago, in an essay in the February/March 2001 Academic Exchange, I wrote, “Would it not have been more humane for Americans of the past, present ,and future, if the founding fathers had been more specific—Life, Health, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness? Alas, there are apparently some who believe that most people can live happily without good health.”

Imagine my delight, then, to read recently about Thomas Jefferson’s views relating health to happiness in a review of his contributions to academic medicine. The essay noted a reference to a letter Jefferson wrote on July 6, 1787—eleven years before the Declaration of Independence—to his relative T.M. Randolph Jr.: “With your talents and industry, with science and the steadfast honesty, which eternally pursues right regardless of consequences, you may promise yourself everything—but health, without which there is no happiness. An attention to health, then, should take place of every other object.” (The original letter may be found in a volume of The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, edited by A.A. Lipscomb, 1904.)

Perhaps Jefferson’s increasing attention to the subject of health was the outcome of his personal experience with the long-term suffering of his wife Martha from a chronic illness (diabetes?) and her eventual death in 1782. One wonders whether a greater knowledge or acknowledgement of these reflections, by the main author of the inalienable rights for all Americans, would have had some impact on the dialogue about health and health care in the last century—and more particularly over the last two years. Could it do so now?

Coincidentally, in the Emory community, we have recently had several opportunities to consider these questions. In addition to this issue of the AE devoted to health care reform, Emory also hosted the J. Willis Hurst History of Medicine Symposium (September 25) and a series of three lectures on the “Pursuit of Happiness” in September, sponsored by the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. That same center also hosted an interfaith “summit” in October, at which happiness was discussed from several religious viewpoints.

Related Links

AJ Nahmias. “The Undisciplined, the Multidisciplined, and the Interdisciplined. Reflections on a half-century’s academic sojourn.” Academic Exchange February/March 2001

7th Annual J. Willis Hurst History of Medicine Symposium

Lecture Series on the Pursuit of Happiness

Interfaith Summit on Happiness