Pop quiz: in one sentence, describe public health. Never mind, it's a loaded question. "We've joked among the deans that we'll give a magnum of champagne to whomever can come up with a one-sentence description," says Susan C. Scrimshaw, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago's school of public health. "No one has claimed it yet."

The obstacle is the field's immense breadth. Scrimshaw notes wryly that public health can involve toxic spills, smoking, or leaving out the potato salad out of the refrigerator. But despite a lack of conciseness concerning its definition, it appears to have vaulted up the list of American funding priorities in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Possibilities suddenly loom for public health researchers, whose work has long been overshadowed by that of basic biomedical researchers, raising the stakes in efforts to clarify what this field is and why it's important....

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