dr. Joyce C. Lashof, who fought for health equity and broke barriers as the first woman to head a state department of public health and the first to serve as dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, died June 4 in a assisted living community in Berkeley. She was 96.
Her daughter, Carol Lashof, said the cause was heart failure.
During a long and varied career, friends and relatives said, Dr. Lashof always prioritized the fight for social justice. In the 1960s, she established a community health center to provide medical care in a low-income area of Chicago. After her appointment as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision codifying the constitutional right to abortion, Dr. Lashof on protocols to give women access to safe abortion in the state, Carol. said Lashof.
In the 1980s, Dr. Lashof uses her powers as a university administrator to organize initiatives to fight discrimination against people with AIDS and to protest against apartheid in South Africa.
She was also a social justice advocate outside of her professional life, taking her family on so many peace and civil rights marches in the 1960s that they came to view mass protests as “a family outing,” her son, Dan, recalls. Joan Baez once performed in their Chicago living room, the family said, for a fundraiser for the anti-segregation Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
“From the outset, her work in medicine and public health has been deeply imbued with a profound commitment to social justice issues in our society,” said Nancy Krieger, a Harvard social epidemiology professor who, along with Dr. Lashof worked on AIDS policy. a graduate student at Berkeley in the 1980s. “That included issues of racism, including issues of social class, including issues of gender.”
After a short tenure as deputy assistant secretary in the federal Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and an extended tenure as deputy director of the Office of Technology Assessment, she was appointed in 1981 to head Berkeley’s School of Public Health. In that position she became Dr. Krieger said she was not satisfied with limiting her scope of work to administrative tasks.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, for example, she set her sights on defeating Proposition 64, a California voting initiative led by far-right political agitator Lyndon LaRouche that would have mandated massive testing for AIDS and, critics feared, mass quarantines.
dr. Lashof secured the cooperation of all four public health schools in the California university system to prepare a policy analysis for the initiative, which Dr. Krieger said it was their first such joint project. The analysis, presented to the California State Assembly, showed the measure’s potentially harmful effects and, said Dr. Krieger, contributed to its defeat.
Friends of Dr. Lashof said she approached activism with the mind of a scientist. “It was about always wanting to provide evidence for the problems that caused health inequalities,” said Dr. Krieger.
These efforts often started at the neighborhood level. In 1967, Dr. Lashof, then on the faculty of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Mile Square Health Center in Chicago, a health clinic funded by the federal Office of Equal Opportunity that provided medical care to an impoverished area of the city.
“She was one of the key people in helping make community health centers federally funded and viable in this country,” said Dr. Krieger.
The Mile Square center, the second such health center in the country, has never achieved the same level of fame as the first, in Mound Bayou, Miss., leading Dr. H. Jack Geiger, one of its founders, became nationally known.
“Joyce was often overshadowed, particularly by men who were more charismatic at a time when sexism was more prevalent,” said Meredith Minkler, professor emeritus of health and social behavior at Berkeley, who, along with Dr. Lashof worked on social justice issues. year. “But she wasn’t worried about being in the spotlight. She was concerned about creating change.”
Joyce Ruth Cohen was born on March 27, 1926 in Philadelphia, the daughter of Harry Cohen, a chartered accountant whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and Rose (Brodsky) Cohen, a homemaker who was born in Ukraine and volunteered with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps settle German Jewish refugees in the United States during and after World War II.
“Her mother clearly instilled in her the ambition to play a full-fledged role in society,” says Dan Lashof. “She was interested in medicine from an early age and at one point said she wanted to be a nurse. Her mother said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be a nurse and do all that work, you might as well be a doctor and be in charge.’”
But after graduating with honors from Duke University in 1946, she found her path to top medical programs was blocked. Many then limited the number of Jewish candidates they accepted and, when the war ended, gave priority to men returning from the armed forces, according to the National Library of Medicine. She finally earned a place at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She married Richard K. Lashof, a theoretical mathematician, in 1950. By the mid-1950s, both she and her husband were junior faculty members at the University of Chicago. In 1960, she again faced gender discrimination when the department president denied her a promotion.
“The chairman told me that he could not recommend a woman for a tenure track position, especially a married woman, because she would undoubtedly follow her husband wherever he went,” said Dr. Lashof at a health conference in 1990. “C est la vie.”
Undeterred, she joined the faculty of the University of Illinois College of Medicine. There she was appointed to lead a health needs study, a project that led to her work in community health center development.
In addition to her children, Dr. Lashof has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2010. Their eldest daughter, Judith Lashof, died of breast cancer in 2018.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Lashof donned a cap and gown to demonstrate in a protest urging the University of California to withdraw from South Africa. She was, said Dr. Minkler, the only campus dean to do so.
“She would stick her neck out,” said Dr. Minkler. “It didn’t matter who she had to cross.”
When she was 91, Dr. Lashof displays a sign that reads “End the Muslim Ban Now” during a protest in Alameda, California, against the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the United States by citizens of five predominantly Muslim countries.
Towards the end of her life, Dr. Lashof was encouraged by the many advances in social justice that had been made over the years, Carol Lashof said. But in recent months, she was stunned to learn that the Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe v. Wade.
“She was absolutely stunned,” said Carol Lashof. “She just looked at me and said, ‘How could that have happened?'”
The many achievements of Dr. Lashof were all the more important because she was a woman.
“Breaking through countless glass ceilings was critical in her career,” said Dr. Minkler, “and it was one of her most important legacies.”