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Pat Buffler, 1938-2013

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It is with profound sadness that we inform IEA members and the epidemiology community of the passing of one of the giants of our profession, Patricia Buffler. Her untimely death on Thursday, September 26, at the age of 75, stopped her career at a point when she was as active as ever. Pat was President-Elect of the IEA. Her term was to start in August 2014, during the World Congress of Epidemiology to be held in Anchorage, Alaska, a state where she spent many cherished moments of her professional life, she used to remind us.

Pat was a nurse and biologist at heart, skills she acquired as an undergraduate. Her passion for public health began in the early 60’s at her beloved University of California, Berkeley, where she earned two graduate degrees, in public health administration and epidemiology. In an impressive career that spanned five decades, she left an indelible mark as scientist, academic leader, and steward of the epidemiology profession. The scientist in her was devoted to understanding the role of the occupational environment as a cause of cancer in adults and children. This dominant career theme brought her substantial national and international recognition because of her discoveries that led to policy interventions to limit carcinogenic exposures in the workplace.

Pat was tireless in contributing her expertise and strong advocacy for cancer control to public health agencies at any level, irrespective of whether the concerns were local, regional, national, or on a global scale. She did so with great mastery of the issues, both methodological and substantive. She was an advocate with a strong sense of pragmatism, putting science first in the agenda, without getting side-tracked by the emotional tones of a debate. Early in her career she was touched by the plight of disadvantaged Alaskan communities. She put her newly acquired epidemiologic skills to study sociocultural stress as the cause of psychiatric illness and alcohol abuse in Alaskan natives. More recently, her eclectic public health background brought her to tackle the challenge of low human papillomavirus vaccination coverage in the US and Canada and the need for registering observational studies to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the environmental epidemiology literature.

The highly accomplished scientist was a born leader. Pat ascended quickly through the faculty ranks at Berkeley, where she served as Dean of the School of Public Health during most of the 90’s. She led our sister societies, SER and ACE, and was elected to the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. At the IEA, she began as elected Council representative for the North American region (2005-08) and enhanced the value of our society’s triennial congresses by adding a very popular course on epidemiologic methods, which she was actively organizing for next year in Anchorage.

Pat Buffler gave the keynote address at the last North American Congress of Epidemiology in July 2011. She focused on the importance for epidemiologists to maintain a skeptical attitude in interpreting research findings and in helping the public to understand them. Above all, she cared deeply for epidemiology as a public health discipline and in the role of epidemiologists in advancing policy that matters. At 75, Patricia Buffler was as active and energetic as ever and heavily engaged in a wide spectrum of activities in multiple domains of public health science and practice. At the IEA we mourn the death of one of our most distinguished members; a champion of our profession and a giant of academic public health.

— Eduardo Franco, McGill University

The family asks that memorial donations be sent to the Patricia A. Buffler Memorial Fund to support Buffler’s long-held wish for strengthening the School of Public Health, including help for students and a new building in the future.  Checks should be made payable to the UC Berkeley Foundation and mailed to the School of Public Health, 417K University Hall, University of California at Berkeley, CA 94720-7360. The name of the fund should be noted on the check.  Donations can also be made online.

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