Dr. Warren Winkelstein Jr., epidemiologist who led seminal AIDS, air pollution studies, dies at 90

Dr. Warren Winkelstein Jr., professor emeritus of epidemiology and a former dean at the University of California, Berkeley, who is credited with leading definitive studies on AIDS transmission, air pollution and other health issues, died Sunday, July 22. He was 90.

Warren Winkelstein Jr., esteemed epidemiologist and former dean of the School of Public Health. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Winkelstein died at his home in Point Richmond of complications from an infection.

Winkelstein’s distinguished career spanned six decades and was marked by numerous accomplishments, such as leading the landmark San Francisco Men’s Health Study that began in the early 1980s, a time when little was known about a mysterious new disease called AIDS.

“That study was the first to provide us information about how HIV was transmitted, the length of the virus’s incubation period, and what behaviors put people at greater risk,” said S. Leonard Syme, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of epidemiology, who first met Winkelstein in 1960. “There were only four AIDS research grants awarded at that time, and Winkelstein’s was the only one that started with a population of healthy people, rather than people who already had AIDS, and observed them over time. It was amazing work, and that research became the definitive study of how AIDS was spread.”

To this day, the San Francisco Men’s Health Study stands as one of the largest and best described cohorts of people at risk for HIV/AIDS, Syme said.

Winkelstein was born on July 1, 1922, in Syracuse, New York. He was in the inaugural class of students at the Putney School in Vermont, a progressive preparatory high school that emphasizes experiential education. He served in the Army in World War II before continuing his education at the University of North Carolina, where he received his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1943. He went on to earn his medical degree from Syracuse University in 1947, and his master’s degree in public health from Columbia University in 1950.

After graduation, Winkelstein served a year with the U.S. Public Health Service, where he was assigned to work on a Special Technical and Economic Mission to North Vietnam. This work was a forerunner to the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In 1951, Winkelstein joined the Erie County Health Department in Buffalo, New York, as a district health officer. Two years later, he became director of the department’s Division of Communicable Disease Control, a position he held until 1956. During his tenure there, he headed one of the largest trials ever conducted of the Salk polio vaccine.

Winkelstein also established the Epidemiology Research Program at the State University of New York, Buffalo, and while there he led one of the first studies to successfully isolate air pollution as the cause of health problems in low-income neighborhoods. That work helped influence the development of U.S. air quality standards.

“I was an executive secretary at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) at that time, and we had never seen a grant proposal like his before,” Syme recalled. “He proposed a way to study the health effects of air pollution that could separate out the confounding variables associated with poverty. That had never been done before. He kept picking topics that no one else had looked at, and his research has really changed our lives.”

In 1968, Syme, by then a faculty member at UC Berkeley, helped recruit Winkelstein to a growing division of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. Winkelstein joined as a professor of epidemiology and served as the school’s dean from 1972 to 1981. He was considered a valued and trusted colleague and thoughtful mentor to scores of graduate students in public health. 

“Warren Winkelstein was one of America’s greatest epidemiologists,” said Dr. Arthur Reingold, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and associate dean for research at the School of Public Health. “He was world-renowned for his pioneering studies in the history of epidemiology, and for his superb teaching skills. He was an important mentor to dozens of epidemiologists, and beloved by several generations of students. He will be sorely missed.”

Among other achievements credited to Winkelstein is the first case-control study of risk factors of coronary heart disease in women, and his pioneering research on the link between tobacco smoke and cervical cancer.

Winkelstein remained active after his retirement in 1991. He continued to teach graduate courses on ethics in epidemiology and the history of the field. He also wrote biographical sketches of prominent figures in the field of epidemiology, including John Snow; Edward Jenner; his mentor, Abraham Lilienfeld; and Janet Elizabeth Lane-Claypon, who conducted a classic study of breast cancer epidemiology in the 1920s.

Winkelstein was pre-deceased in 2004 by his third wife, Veva Winkelstein. He is survived by his three children, Rebecca Yamin of Philadelphia, Pa.; Joshua Winkelstein of Holt, Mich.; and Shoshana Winkelstein of Oakland, Calif.; as well as by three grandchildren and three great- grandchildren.

A campus memorial service will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 10, at the Great Hall of The Faculty Club. Click here for a map.

Gifts may be made in Winkelstein’s memory to The Warren Winkelstein Epidemiology Graduate Student Support FundChecks should be made payable to the UC Berkeley Foundation and sent to the School of Public Health, 417H University Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360. The name of the fund should be noted on the check.