Halbert L. Dunn, M.D.

Halbert L. Dunn (1895-1975)   


Halbert L. Dunn was born in New Paris, OH. He earned both medical and doctoral degrees at the University of Minnesota. He served on the staffs of Presbyterian Hospital of New York City, the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and the University of Minnesota before becoming chief of the National Office of Vital Statistics in Washington, D.C.

Then he got the idea about wellness.

It was for what Dr. Dunn did with his life after that time that he is remembered today as the founding father of the concept.

In a recent interview, I was asked to capture, in 350 words or less, three things about Dr. Dunn:

  1. For what is he best known?
  2. How have his ideas been utilized in the field of health promotion?
  3. Name a few sources where we can learn more about his life and work.


Here is what I came up with.


Dr. Dunn was to the early adopters of wellness what the Enlightenment was to America's Founding Fathers  - an inspiration and source for definitions, ideals, visions and promises. He well described the components of a dynamic state of full and effective living, an integrated method of functioning. He championed the transcendent wellness goal - to maximize the potential of environments in which people function.

Alas, just as America struggles still with the ideals our Founders gained from the Enlightenment in Europe (i.e., liberty, equality, justice, reason, self-governance/personal responsibility and independence) so, too, is high level wellness, as Dunn described it, an unrealized dream. America, for all its unprecedented triumphs as a leading democratic Republic, remains mired in racial, social, economic and religious divisions. The wellness ideal, only slightly more than half a century on, is not in evidence - yet. Dunn would not recognize or think much of wellness" at health promotion worksites, health/medical care institutions, educational settings, spas around the world or other sectors where the term advanced is employed in ways foreign to concepts articulated in Dunn's seminal work High Level Wellness. 

Applications - Applying Dunn's Ideas

Dunn's concept of wellness is not suitable for U.S. worksites, where health promotion lives. Dunn's panoramic view of man, his focus on laws of energy, on the mind, the imagination and the natural and social environments is not compatible with the mindsets at  constricted settings that extoll cost containment, risk reduction and medical minutiae. These controlling objectives distract from explorations and expansions of personal satisfactions and purposes in life.

On a hopeful note, know that Dunn concluded his series of 29 high level wellness lectures with a soliloquy on transition points in the scheme of things, using water as an example (i.e., liquid to ice or steam) if conditions (i.e., temperatures) are right:

It is the same with the emergence of thought...After a long period of slow development, a gigantic advance is made, seemingly all at once. The world is never the same after such a transition.

A wellness consummation devoutedly to be wished, anticipated, promoted and welcomed.

Seminal Readings

  • Halbert L. Dunn, High Level Wellness. Beatty, Arlington, VA 1961.
  • Halbert L. Dunn, High-Level Wellness for Man and Society, American Journal of Public Health (Nations Health, June,  1959; 49(6): 786-792.
  • James William Miller, Wellness: The History and Development of a Concept, Spektrum Freizeit, 2005.

I hope this short account of the life of a very good man and a remarkable doctor will lead you to look deeper into the works of Halbert Dunn.

Be well and look on the bright side.