by Jason P. Smith
Spero M. Manson, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and head of the American Indian and Alaska Native Programs at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, recently was elected to a life-long appointment to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. A member of the Chippewa tribe, Manson is one of the first American Indians elected to the Institute of Medicine.
Earning his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Minnesota, Manson has devoted 25 years of research and program development to improving the health and welfare of Native people. He also has published more than 120 articles on the assessment, treatment and prevention of physical, alcohol, drug and mental health problems that plague the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Manson serves on a wide range of boards, including the National Institute of Mental Health, the Office of the Surgeon General and the Department of Veterans Affairs. He has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the prestigious Rema Lapouse Mental Health Epidemiology Award from the American Public Health Association; the Walker-Ames Professorship at the University of Washington; and the Hammer Award from former Vice President Al Gore.
Throughout his many years of research, Manson has traveled extensively, and he has seen first-hand both positive and negative situations in Native communities. Manson said things most people in America take for granted – such as basic sanitation and safe housing – are cause for major problems in some Native communities. "Unintentional injuries happen with cars and in houses because people simply cannot afford to fix them and make them safe," Manson said.
Not having the same access to much of the medical technology as the majority of the country also can have devastating implications. "Thirty percent of cancer victims in the general population die," Manson said. "Fifty percent of those with the same cancer in Native communities die because they don’t have access to the same health care."
Although there are many negative aspects of his research, Manson said there have been many high points as well. He helped to establish funding for Navajo Vietnam veterans to use ceremonials to help with their readjustment upon returning from the war, and he has seen children emerge as scientists and accomplished health professionals in part because of his guidance. Manson said he also takes joy in looking at the young children, knowing that the nature of his work will help make their lives richer and even help increase their life expectancy.
With his recent election, Manson said he hopes to reach further in advocating for the health needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Election to the institute is seen as both an honor and an obligation to work on behalf of the organization in its governance and studies. Manson will engage in a broad range of studies on health policy issues, including how best to assure the health of the public in the 21st century; the current state of knowledge and policy regarding microbial threats to health; the overall system of protections for human participants in research studies; the long-term medical and social results of cancer treatment and survival; and Americans who lack health insurance and the consequences for them and society.