In Memoriam: Paul R. Epstein

Paul R. Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and HMS instructor in Global Health and Social Medicine, who died of lymphoma at his Boston home on Nov. 13, 2011. He was 67.

Paul Robert Epstein was born on Nov. 16, 1943, in Manhattan, the older of two children of Nathan Epstein, a physician, and Edith Hillman Boxill, a music therapist. At the progressive private school he attended, the Little Red School House, his classmates included future 1960s anti-war activists Angela Davis and Kathy Boudin. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School, Cornell University and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Epstein, a physician and associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at HMS, began his career working in low-income communities, from East Cambridge to Africa’s east coast. In 1973 he was appointed an associate in medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. After spending 1978 through 1980 in Mozambique with his wife, Andy, a nurse, he enrolled in a master's program in tropical public health at Harvard. He was appointed a clinical instructor in medicine and later instructor in medicine at Mass General. Soon he was making critical connections between the emergence and re-emergence of infectious diseases and climate change.

It was during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 that Epstein's public health mission became solidified. There, he and Eric Chivian, a Harvard psychiatrist and now director of the Center they co-launched in 1996, noticed something alarming: While wolves, whales, oceans and trees garnered ample attention, no one was talking about humans.

Over the next several years, Epstein and Chivian continued to make the concept of global environmental change concrete and personal for people, primarily by relating that change to health. A true pioneer in this area, Epstein was among the first to recognize the less obvious health effects of greenhouse gases, from ragweed pollen to extreme weather events. He received recognition for his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. Gore had tapped Epstein as a science adviser in conceiving the slide show about global warming that became the basis of the Academy Award-winning 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Epstein published widely on the health effects of climate change in journals and lay publications, co-authoring, for example, the recent book “Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It." He spoke often on the crisis through the media and public lectures, and educated physicians through a partnership with the American Medical Association.

Epstein is survived by his wife of 44 years, Andy Epstein, and children Jesse and Benjamin. A memorial celebration is planned for the early spring. Donations will be gratefully received by the Union of Concerned Scientists,