We hate to write posts like this. The Reveres lost a friend and the battle against HIV/AIDS lost a Field Commander this week when Steve Lagakos, his wife Regina and his mother were killed in a horrific head on collision on their way back from his summer home in New Hampshire, where they celebrated his mother’s 94th birthday. The driver of the oncoming car was also killed. Four lives gone in an instant.
Steve was one of the world’s premier biostatisticians and we had known him for 20 years, since his early days at the Harvard School of Public Health where he and his mentor, Marvin Zelen, worked with community members in Woburn, Massachusetts, north of Boston to unravel the tragic mystery of a cluster of childhood leukemia cases in a neighborhood in the east of that town. The story of the case later became a best-selling book, Civil Action, by Jon Harr, and later a Hollywood movie of the same name starring John Travolta. The problem of understanding the Woburn leukemia cluster took cleverness and technical virtuosity, and Lagakos and Zelen had both. But it was more than a technical problem for Steve:
?We invited [a group of Woburn parents and their Minister, Bruce Young] back to our offices and planned the Woburn study right on the spot,” Marvin Zelen, the Lemuel Shattuck research professor of statistical science at the Harvard School of Public Health, said of their work linking water from the wells to illnesses such as leukemia that were affecting children in the city. ?Steve did all the heavy lifting and was absolutely terrific. That study was done a long time ago, but to this day it?s the most innovative one ever done on the environment. And it was all Steve?s clever ideas.”
?In all my workings with him, and there were many, he never made lay people feel as if they didn?t know what they were talking about,” said the Rev. Bruce A. Young, the former pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church in Woburn and the cofounder of the citizens group, For a Cleaner Environment, or FACE.
?He always could find something in what we were saying that he held as important and insightful,” Young said. ?That was a tremendous gift. He was upholding us, and when I say us, I mean the community in Woburn in our attempts to get at the truth.”
?He had the utmost respect for those people who were trying to make a positive change in their community in the small sense, and in the wider sense of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the nation,” Rev. Young said of the time Dr. Lagakos spent with Woburn?s activists. ?He came at the issue without bias or prejudice, but with an incredibly large heart and gave of his time. We could never have purchased his time if he charged us by the hour for his efforts. It was all donated.” (Bryan Marquard, Boston Globe)
After Woburn, Steve turned his attention to HIV/AIDS and was responsible for planning and analyzing some of the most important clinical trials that have turned this diagnosis from a death sentence to a manageable illness. There is a lot to say about Steve’s contributions to science and public health and you can read about them in the obituary linked above.
But as news of his death spread quickly on Tuesday, the Reveres had only one obsessive thought: What a nice guy. What a really, really nice guy.