by Dick Clapp, DSc, MPH
My friend Dr. Paul Epstein succumbed to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on Sunday, Nov. 13, three days short of his 68th birthday. Here are some thoughts about him that I wanted to share with TPH readers. First, he was a compassionate physician who worked in low income communities early in his career. He went overseas with his wife Andy, a nurse, in 1978-80 as a “cooperante” in newly independent Mozambique. When he came back to Boston, he continued to practice family medicine while he enrolled in a master’s program in tropical public health at Harvard. During this phase, he began to describe the connections between outbreaks or re-emergence of infectious diseases in response to climate change. In 1992, he attended the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. This led him to become one of the handful of physicians at the center of the evolving science of climate change and its impacts on human health.
He joined with colleagues Dick Levins, Howard Hu and others at Harvard School of Public Health to form the “New Diseases Group” that led to several publications and a popular course on global change and public health. Eventually, he became Associate Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and began a tireless fifteen-year effort to expand knowledge about both problems and solutions to the emerging critical condition of the planet. I told him that at this point he was practicing planetary medicine.
Dr. Epstein continued to speak out, collaborate with researchers and teach about the public health consequences of the unhealthy energy choices we have made, and the urgent need to seek alternatives to fossil fuel as a primary source. He documented numerous examples in both developing and wealthy countries of human health impacts of extreme weather events and shifting climates. His book, “Changing Planet, Changing Health,” released with co-author Dan Ferber in April 2011 summarizes his lifetime of work as a scientist, physician, leader and visionary thinker. One of his most recent media appearances, earlier this year, was captured in a Greenpeace memorial tribute. The world is better off because of the work he did in his career, and the young people he inspired to continue this work, but sadly he has left us too soon.
I had the privilege of knowing Dr. Epstein for 43 years, and working with him as co-author on articles, reports, letters to the editor, and colleague in public health courses at Boston University and Harvard. I also valued him as a close friend and will miss him for the rest of my life.
Update, 3/7/12: A longer remembrance of Paul Epstein, Paul Epstein (1943-2011): A Life of Commitment to Health and Social Justice, has been published in PLoS Biology.
Dick Clapp is an epidemiologist who has forty years experience in public health practice, research and teaching. He is Professor Emeritus at Boston University School of Public Health and Adjunct Professor at the U. of Mass.- Lowell School of Health and Environment. He is a former co-Chair of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility and served as Director of the Massachusetts Cancer Registry from 1980-1989.