Dr. Joyce C. Lashof, who fought for health equity and broke down barriers as the first woman to lead a state public health department and the first to serve as dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, died June 4 in an assisted living community in Berkeley. She was 96 years old.
Her daughter, Carol Lashof, said her cause was heart failure.
Over a long and varied career, friends and family members said, Dr. Lashof has always prioritized the fight for social justice. In the 1960s, she founded a community health center to provide medical care in a low-income Chicago neighborhood. After her appointment as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade of the Supreme Court codifying the constitutional right to abortion, Dr. Lashof established protocols for women to access safe abortion in the state, Carol Lashof said.
In the 1980s, Dr. Lashof used her powers as a prominent university administrator to organize initiatives to combat discrimination against people with AIDS and to protest apartheid in South Africa.
She also championed social justice 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. “, recalls his son, Dan. Joan Baez once performed at their living room in Chicago, the family said, for a fundraiser for the Anti-Segregation Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
“From the beginning, his work in medicine and public health was deeply driven by a deep commitment to issues of social justice in our society,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard, who has worked on the AIDS politics with Dr. Lashof as a Berkeley graduate student in the 1980s. “It included issues of racism, issues of social class, issues of gender.”
After a brief tenure as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a longer tenure as Deputy Director of the Office of Technology Assessment, she was appointed head of the Berkeley School of Public Health in 1981. In this position, Dr. Krieger said she was not content to limit her scope to administrative tasks.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, for example, she set her sights on defeating Proposition 64, a California ballot initiative led by far-right political agitator Lyndon LaRouche that would have mandated testing mass for AIDS and, critics feared, quarantines.
Dr. Lashof secured cooperation from the four schools of public health in the California university system to prepare a policy analysis of the initiative, which Dr. Krieger said was their first such joint project. The analysis, presented to the California State Assembly, demonstrated the potentially harmful effects of the measure and, Dr. Krieger said, contributed to its defeat.
Friends of Dr. Lashof said she approaches activism with the mind of a scientist. “It was about always wanting to provide evidence on the issues that were causing health inequities,” Dr. Krieger said.
These efforts have often started at the neighborhood level. In 1967, Dr. Lashof, then a faculty member at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, opened the Mile Square Health Center in Chicago, a community health clinic funded by the federal Equal Opportunity Office who provided medical care to a poor area of the city.
“She was one of the key people in helping to make community health centers federally funded and viable in this country,” Dr. Krieger said.
The Mile Square Center, the second such community health center in the nation, never achieved the same level of fame as the first, in Mound Bayou, Miss., which brought fame to Dr. H. Jack Geiger , one of its founders, nationwide.
“Joyce has often been overshadowed, especially by more charismatic men at a time when sexism was more common,” said Meredith Minkler, professor emeritus of health and social behavior at Berkeley who worked with Dr Lashof on issues of social justice over the years. “But she didn’t care about being in the limelight. She was concerned with creating change.
Joyce Ruth Cohen was born March 27, 1926, in Philadelphia, the daughter of Harry Cohen, an accountant whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and Rose (Brodsky) Cohen, a Ukrainian-born housewife who served as a volunteer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helping to settle German Jewish refugees in the United States during and after World War II.
“His mother clearly instilled in him the ambition to play a full role in society,” Dan Lashof said. “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 this work, you might as well be doctor and be responsible.’ »
But after graduating from Duke University with honors in 1946, she found her way to top graduate medical programs stalled. Many then limited the number of Jewish applicants they accepted and, at the end of the war, gave priority to men returning from the armed forces, according to the National Library of Medicine. She eventually got 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, she and her husband were junior faculty members at the University of Chicago. In 1960, she again faced gender discrimination when the department chairman denied her a promotion.
“The president informed 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,” Dr. Lashof said during from 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 her to develop community health centers.
In addition to his children, Dr. Lashof is survived by 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 robe to demonstrate in a protest urging the University of California to divest from South Africa. She was, Dr. Minkler said, the only dean on campus to do so.
“She would stick her neck out,” Dr. Minkler said. “It didn’t matter who she had to run into.”
91-year-old Dr Lashof carried a sign that read ‘End Muslim Banning Now’ during a protest in Alameda, California against the Trump administration’s ban to travel to the United States for 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 dismayed to learn that the Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe v. Wade.
“She was absolutely baffled,” Carol Lashof said. “She just looked at me and said, ‘How could this have happened? “”
Dr. Lashof’s many accomplishments were all the more significant because she was a woman.
“Breaking down a lot of glass ceilings was pivotal in his career,” Dr. Minkler said, “and it was one of his most important legacies.”