Trained as a molecular biologist at The Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Medical School, Winsten served as co-editor of the three-volume Origins of Human Cancer with Nobel laureate James D. Watson and Dean Howard H. Hiatt of the Harvard School of Public Health (1977). Winsten’s three-year study, Science and the Media: The Boundaries of Truth, published in 1985, was praised by the Columbia Journalism Review as a “landmark study on the relationship between science and the press.”
In 1985, Winsten was appointed founding director of the Center for Health Communication (CHC) at the Harvard School of Public Health. In 1990, Winsten was named to the endowed position of Frank Stanton Director of CHC. He served in that position, and as an Associate Dean of the School, for the next 30 years. The first academic center devoted to health communication, CHC created the first university-based fellowship program for journalists who cover public health and medicine; offered graduate coursework and seminars on health communication; tested strategies to harness the power of mass communication to advance the public’s health; convened researchers and practitioners to examine how strategic communication can influence public policy, social norms, and individual behavior; and published recommendations for the conduct of local and national health campaigns.
CHC is best known for creating the U.S. Designated Driver Campaign to help prevent alcohol-related traffic fatalities and injuries. Launched in 1988, the initiative demonstrated how the "designated driver" concept could be imported from Scandinavia and rapidly diffused through American society via mass communication, catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms related to driving-after-drinking. The New York Times reported the campaign’s launch in a front-page story on August 31, 1988. The Writers Guild of America, West endorsed the effort, and the campaign received sustained support from the Hollywood creative community. Writers depicted the use of designated drivers in fictional story lines of more than 160 prime-time TV episodes over four television seasons. With an annual budget of $300,000, the campaign received over $100 million per year in donated airtime Within four years of the campaign’s launch, the Roper Poll found that 52% of Americans under 30 had served as a designated driver or been driven home by one. Among frequent drinkers of all ages, 54% had been driven home by a designated driver. Reflecting the concept’s new-found prominence, the term “designated driver” appeared in the Random House College Dictionary in 1991. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities declined by 25% between 1988-1992, compared to 0% change in the preceding three years; non-alcohol-related traffic fatalities fell by only 5% between 1988-1992. The campaign is credited as an important factor, among other factors, in the downward trend.
A 2002 report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation stated, “The National Designated Driver Campaign developed by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication, is widely considered to be the first successful effort to partner with the Hollywood community to promote health messages in prime-time programming.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, “Many grant makers say it was the success of the campaign that persuaded them that skillful work with news and entertainment media can bring about social change.”
In 1997, Winsten co-chaired the communications task force for the President's Summit for America’s Future. Attended by President Bill Clinton and chaired by General Colin Powell, the gathering challenged the Nation to make the health and well-being of all its children a first-rank priority. Following the Summit, CHC launched a national media campaign to help greatly expand the availability of volunteer mentors for children from underserved communities. The New York Times reported, “The ability of the communications industry to persuade Americans to modify their behavior for what are deemed laudable causes is being tested again by an ambitious project to sell the concept of mentoring. It is being brought to you by the same people who successfully sold the concept of the designated driver.” From 1997-2015, CHC served as the communications arm of the U.S. youth mentoring movement in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership. The annual number of young people matched with mentors through local community programs grew from 300,000 in 1997 to over 3.5 million a decade later.
Winsten retired from HSPH in 2022 and accepted an appointment at Harvard Medical School where he teaches in its new Master’s Program in Media, Medicine, and Health. Winsten acknowledges five influential mentors: Dr. Frank Stanton, CBS president; Grant Tinker, NBC chairman; humanitarian/philanthropist Ray Chambers; Dr. Howard H. Hiatt, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health; and Winsten’s father, Dr. Walter A. Winsten, who helped develop new methods to enrich uranium isotopes on the Manhattan Project and later was Professor of Chemistry at Hofstra University.