SPH mourns the passing and celebrates the work of inaugural dean, Thomas Grayston

J. Thomas Grayston


The University of Washington School of Public Health (SPH) mourns the loss of J. Thomas (“Tom”) Grayston, who passed away at home in Mazama on Feb. 15, 2024 at the age of 99. Grayston served as both chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine (the precursor to SPH) from 1960-1970 and the inaugural dean of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine (later renamed SPH). While he laid the foundations for the School and its core disciplines, Grayston was dean for only one year. In 1971, John Hogness, former dean of medicine and then UW executive vice president, recruited Grayston to become vice president of health sciences, overseeing the six health sciences schools. Grayston maintained his research labs while he served in these administrative roles and returned to his research until retiring in 2010. He remained an active and much beloved member of the SPH community until the time of his passing. 

J. Thomas Grayston discovered his passion for public health on a Midwestern corn field. An old silo, to be precise. 

It was there, in the 1950s, that Grayston, a young medical doctor at the University of Chicago, investigated a case of histoplasmosis — a lung infection caused by fungal spores. At the time, little was known about the disease. 

Grayston had followed a patient back to his farm, 50 miles away in northwest Indiana. After inspecting the farm and taking soil samples, Grayston pieced it all together. The patient had become ill after cleaning out the old silo, disturbing soil containing infectious spores most likely from bird or bat droppings. The farmer’s children, who helped shovel and transport the soil, were also affected. 

“Clinicians treat patients in hospitals but by going out into the community, learning where they lived and worked, we were able to find out how exactly the patient got infected,” said Grayston in a 2021 article for the School’s 50th anniversary

It was this experience that would launch Grayston into a career as an infectious disease epidemiologist, serving as one of the first members ever of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Epidemic Intelligence Service. He then led studies of infectious diseases in East Asia for a U.S. naval research unit based in Taiwan before taking on a new challenge at the University of Washington in 1960. 

During the decade that followed, Grayston brought in state and federal support and hired key faculty who would go on to lead the School. 

For a longer version of this article and to learn more about Grayston’s contributions to the history of the UW School of Public Health, read “Fifty Years of Saving Lives, Serving the Public.”