Navia Honored Through School of Public Health Scholarship
Juan M. Navia, M.D., the inaugural director of the John J. Sparkman Center for International Public Health Education and the second dean of the School of Public Health, made incalculable contributions to the university and to the advancement of the public health discipline during his long career at UAB. Now family, friends, and admirers are honoring his memory by giving to the School of Public Health to establish an endowed scholarship.
Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1927, Navia earned a bachelor’s degree in food technology and a master’s degree in food science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He then returned to Cuba and served as director of the Fundación de Investigaciones Medicas (FIM) laboratories of nutrition in Havana and as associate professor at the St. Thomas of Villanova Catholic University, where he taught microbiology until the communist regime closed the university.
Under his leadership at FIM, the laboratory undertook the Herculean task of analyzing the nutritional value of all the common plant-based foods in Cuba, and Navia’s work on this initiative merited receipt of the Conde de San Esteban de Cañongo Award in 1954 from the Academy of Sciences in Havana.
Fleeing political turmoil in Cuba, Navia and his young family arrived back in the United States in 1961, where he resumed his studies at MIT in nutrition and oral health, completing a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry in 1965. Navia joined the faculty at UAB in 1968, having been recruited to the School of Dentistry as a dental and nutritional researcher by the university’s first president, Joseph F. Volker, D.D.S., Ph.D., and Charles A. “Scotty” McCallum Jr., D.M.D., M.D., who was dean of the School of Dentistry at the time.
Navia published more than 150 papers, as well as a book, Animal Models in Dental Research, considered by many as the standard for the humane use of animals in dental research. He held numerous academic positions at UAB during the next 25 years, including director of the Nutrition and Oral Health Training Programs and senior scientist at the Institute of Dental Research, in addition to serving as the director of the John J. Sparkman Center for International Public Health Education and later as dean of the School of Public Health.
Navia worked with faculty at UAB and other universities to establish public health training programs at universities in developing countries, most notably Colombia, Jamaica, Peru, and Thailand. He retired in 1993, continuing through his research, teaching, and administrative activities to advocate for the university’s increased influence and attention to the international aspects of public health, a priority emphasized throughout his academic career.
After retirement, Navia was recognized as a Fellow of the American Institute of Nutrition, was presented an honorary doctorate in dental science by Chiang Mai University in Thailand, and received the Global Citizen Award in Recognition of Leadership and Academic Excellence in International Health Education in 2007.
In retirement, Navia earned a master’s degree in theology from Spring Hill College and developed his thesis on the life of Father Felix Varela into a book, An Apostle for the Immigrants, which he self-published in 2002. He also established the Padre Varela Award in the UAB Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in 2005 to provide support to faculty members in their scholarly efforts.
At UAB, Navia’s legacy reflects a deep commitment to values and a great love of scholarship, and his dedication to UAB as a leading center for health-care education and service, along with his kindness, compassion, and passion for public health, continue to be missed on campus.
“Dr. Navia was a uniquely gifted and talented renaissance man,” says Max Michael, M.D., dean of the School of Public Health. “Over the years his intelligence, insight, and grace touched many students, faculty, and staff at the school and across the globe in ways that will reverberate for generations to come.”