This Day in Jewish History / Birth of Scientist Who Showed How AIDS Is Transmitted

Pioneering studies of Warren Winkelstein, Jr., one of America’s great epidemiologists, helped determine links between environmental factors and certain types of cancer.

David Green
David B. Green
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Warren Winkelstein, Jr., one of America’s great epidemiologists.Credit: Peg Skorpinski
David Green
David B. Green

July 1, 1922, is the birthdate of Warren Winkelstein, Jr., one of America’s great epidemiologists, whose pioneering studies helped scientists understand the spread of AIDS and determine the links between environmental factors and diseases like cervical and lung cancer.

Winkelstein, who was both a medical doctor and a public health specialist, was for many years a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, a period during which he headed up the San Francisco Men’s Health Study, which provided definitive evidence that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus and spread through unprotected sex.

Winkelstein was born in Syracuse, New York, the first child of Warren Winkelstein, a lawyer, and the former Evelyn Neiman. The senior Winkelstein was active in the Jewish community of Syracuse and in liberal social causes, and the family home was a meeting place for intellectuals and cultural figures associated with nearby Syracuse University.

Later in life, in interviews, the son described himself as having an “adventurous spirit” as a child, and for that reason his mother decided he should be sent to boarding school. Warren Winkelstein, Jr., was in the inaugural class of the progressive Putney School, in Vermont, which combined academic studies with agricultural work.

Although a family friend inspired him to enter the field of public health, Winkelstein took a somewhat roundabout route to the profession. As an undergraduate, he studied sociology at the University of North Carolina, taking a break of a year or so when he got married, in 1941, and working in construction. After returning to college and graduating, he attended medical school at Syracuse, and only in 1950 did he complete a master’s in public health, at Columbia University.

During the Korean War, Winkelstein was sent by the U.S. Public Health Service to serve in Vietnam (then still under French rule). Based in Hanoi, he was part of a team that was a forerunner of sorts to the U.S. Agency for International Development and helped the country establish a public health infrastructure.

Upon his return home, Winkelstein lived in Buffalo, New York, and held both government and academic positions, establishing an epidemiology program at the State University of New York there. Studies he oversaw in Buffalo helped establish epidemiological links between air pollution and lung cancer, which previously had been thought to have a component connected to socioeconomic standing, and between smoking and cervical cancer. He also directed a vast clinical study of the then-new Salk polio vaccine.

Winkelstein joined the faculty of the School of Public Health at Berkeley in 1968, serving as its dean between 1972 and 1981. It was there, in 1984, that he was approached to organize an epidemiological study of AIDS, which was then little understood and nearly always fatal.

He insisted on using “probability sampling,” which meant seeking participants via door-to-door canvassing, rather than through newspaper ads, so he could get a more representative sample. His scientific rigor brought him into frequent conflict with funders, and at times with rival scientists, but Winkelstein’s findings stood the test of time. In the case of AIDS, his work provided essential understanding of the ways and means by which the disease spread.

Winkelstein retired in 1991, but continued teaching, and also devoted time to writing biographical studies of other important epidemiologists. He was married three times, and was father to three children.

Warren Winkelstein, Jr., died of an infection on July 22, 2012, at his home in Port Richmond, California. He was 90 years old.