In Memory of Lester Breslow MD, MPH

March 17, 1915—April 9, 2012

Dr. Lester Breslow was a visionary public health figure with a well-established track record for being ahead of his time.

He was widely known for his early advocacy and research into health promotion and disease prevention. Breslow’s pioneering Alameda County studies beginning in the early 1960s were among the first to show that simple health practices — getting regular exercise and sleep, not drinking excessively, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight — add both years and quality to life.

He earned his medical and public health degrees (M.D., M.P.H., Sci.D.) from the University of Minnesota. After completing his service as a U.S. Army captain in the Pacific Division during World War II, Breslow moved to California. As chief of the Bureau of Chronic Diseases of the California Department of Public Health from 1946 to 1960, Breslow launched several of the earliest definitive studies of tobacco’s adverse health effects. He also started the California Tumor Registry, which has been a resource for hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of personal health care services in cancer detection and treatment. His studies were later cited in the U.S. Surgeon General’s landmark 1964 report on the negative health effects of smoking.

Breslow considered himself an “activist for disadvantaged people.” In 1969, he said the public health profession must go beyond issuing scientific reports and suggest social actions to improve people’s lives. “In the long run, housing may be more important than hospitals to health,” he said.

Breslow’s record of public health leadership at the local, state, national and international levels was unparalleled. He served as president of three associations: the International Epidemiological Association (1967–68), the American Public Health Association (1968–69) and the American Schools of Public Health (1973–75).

He was a member of the Tobacco Education Oversight Committee for the state of California (1990–96) and served as a commissioner on the Los Angeles County Public Health Commission. He was the founding editor of the Annual Review of Public Health (1978–90) and editor-in-chief of the first-ever Encyclopedia of Public Health, first published in 2001 and used around the world.

Breslow was California’s director of public health (1965–68) and dean of the UCLA School of Public Health (1972–80). Following his tenure as dean, he continued to be an active and beloved member of the school’s faculty — speaking, writing and motivating students and faculty well into his 90s.  

Even at his advanced age, Breslow practiced what he preached, getting exercise by maintaining his fruit and vegetable garden and walking 12 to 15 miles a week.

He is survived by his wife, Devra; children Norman, Jack and Stephen; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren—and the lives of all he taught and inspired.

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