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An outsider at highschool

An outsider at highschool

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/Simone Golob

Prof. Hans Bosma inspired by Jo Willems

At the Bisschoppelijk College Sittard grammar school, Prof. Hans Bosma (Einighausen, 1963) did not go down in history as the model pupil. More like a teenager, in a Black Sabbath or Motörhead t-shirt, who was often contrary, played truant, did not work, and who was moved back from sixth to fifth class. “I obviously wasn’t feeling good,” says the professor of Social Epidemiology.

“I was from a working-class family – my father was a crane operator – mingling with a lot of children from a higher class and didn’t always feel comfortable there.”

I didn’t get on with most of my teachers, except for one: Jo Willems, a teacher of English. “I can still see him with his tangled head of hair and de Volkskrant stuck under his arm, walking across the school yard. He lived in Maastricht, alternative style, leftish. I really liked him. I can’t remember ever being really taught by him. He brought up political and social issues or put on music while we had to listen to the English lyrics. Punk music, but also Miles Davis.”

Willems himself was an outsider among teaching staff and so he had a keen eye for Bosma’s situation. “One day he called upon me to give a talk about hard rock. I thought that was great. I was allowed to play music and explain why I liked hard rock so much, but I was also very nervous. Willems was the only one who let me be who I was and taught me to find my own way with my own baggage and ideas.”

It wasn’t by chance that Bosma went to study sociology, in Tilburg. “I was interested in inequality, injustice, social exclusion and wanted to do something for the weaker in our society. I graduated there under Education Sociologist prof. Jaap Dronkers, who now works at the School of Business and Economics. He made me feel that what I did was important.”

That is how Bosma, he says, was given nudges at various stages in his life by people who were involved and driven. “I completed my PhD in 1993 in Maastricht with Ad Appels, professor of Medical Psychology, on socioeconomic health differences, which are still prevalent today: people with higher education on average live seven years longer than the lower educated. After completing my PhD, I went to work for CBS (Statistics Netherlands), partly because I didn’t feel quite at ease in the university culture.”

Two years later, he nevertheless returned to the academic world, in London with Prof. Michael Marmot – Sir Michael Marmot these days. “He is a true heavyweight, a pioneer who was one of the first to prove that drinking no alcohol is unhealthy too. Marmot gave me the confidence that I could do it, which led to publications in The Lancet and in the British Medical Journal.”

After that, Bosma landed with a “really hard worker” in Rotterdam: Prof. Johan Mackenbach, a famous Social Epidemiologist. “An authentic scientist who tells his own story, who lets the data speak and who is not afraid. For example, he fights the established idea that countries with minor income differences also have minor health differences. Data from Scandinavian countries strengthened his conviction.”  

And the last person? His father. “A passionate man who worked extremely hard, and from whom I inherited the  zest for work. I want to get on, I have high standards and yes, I always have something to complain about.”

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