UC Berkeley epidemiology professor and AIDS research pioneer dies at 90

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UC Berkeley professor emeritus of epidemiology and former dean of the campus School of Public Health Warren Winkelstein Jr. died July 21 of an infection at his Richmond home. He was 90.

Winkelstein was most noted for his pioneering study of AIDS in the 1980s, study of heart disease in women and finding a link between tobacco and cervical cancer, according to colleague and campus professor of biostatistics Steve Selvin.

“He was very intelligent with a big passion in his academics,” said daughter Shoshana Winkelstein. “He was also very warm and kind.”

Born in Syracuse, New York, on July 1, 1922, Winkelstein started his career at UC Berkeley in 1968 as a professor of epidemiology. He later became dean of the campus School of Public Health in 1972.

Prior to his career on campus, Winkelstein had served a year working in Vietnam with the U.S. Public Health Service. In 1981, Winkelstein led research on AIDS in the San Francisco Men’s Health Study.

“In 1981, (Winkelstein) convinced the federal government to study AIDS at its onset,” Selvin said. “He was heroic in that he led the first popular study on something no one really knew about. He also studied air pollution’s effects on health in 1950s, which, at the time, wasn’t something people would think about.”

Campus Clinical Professor Linda Neuhauser, another one of Winkelstein’s colleagues, described Winkelstein as modest, tenacious and delightful to talk to about various topics such as history or politics.

Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Peter Duesberg said Winkelstein was a very open person to debate with who did not hold personal grudges despite the very different views the two scientists had.

“He and I had different views on AIDS — he saw it as a virus while I saw the cause of it as behavior or lifestyle related,” Duesberg said. “I’ll miss him for his scholarship. Not many new generations of public health scientists will even try to discuss openly about different viewpoints like he did.”

One of Winkelstein’s former students, Stephen Francis, called Winkelstein an inspiring and wonderful mentor who was very passionate about all epidemiology fields.

“It was inspiring listening to his passion,” Francis said. “He got the room rolling in his presentations, and he had a well-rounded understanding in his field and just about everything.”

Besides epidemiology, Winkelstein was also passionate about playing the organ, traveling and world history and according to Selvin, Winkelstein had played his organ in symphonies.

According to Shoshana Winkelstein, Winkelstein lived his last years with his recently deceased girlfriend Jean Eakle.

During the last two years of Winkelstein’s life, according to Neuhauser, Winkelstein had bouts of pneumonia but still came to the campus to give lectures, up until six months ago.

“We’ll all miss (Winkelstein), ” Neuhauser said. “He was unique and there’s no way to replace him. It’ll be a loss of someone essential and influential to many.”

Winkelstein is survived by his three children — Shoshana Winkelstein, Rebecca Yamin, and Joshua Winkelstein — as well as three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for Winkelstein will be held on Sept. 10 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Great Hall of the campus Faculty Club.