Dr. Joyce Cohen Lashof, a passionate health equity advocate who broke gender barriers as the first woman to be appointed director of any state department of public health and the first woman appointed dean of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, died June 4 in Berkeley at the age of 96.
This story was produced by UC Berkeley and first published on Berkeley Public Health
An early champion of community health services and health equity, Lashof achieved a series of firsts during her long career. She served as the first female director of the State of Illinois Public Health Department; as deputy assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and as assistant director of the Office of Technology Assessment before becoming the first female dean of a UC Berkeley professional school when she became dean of Berkeley Public Health in 1981. She later served terms as president of both the Association of Schools of Public Health and the American Public Health Association.
Despite many career achievements and a legacy as a beloved mentor, Lashof remained humble and more interested in outcomes than personal acclaim.
“She combined a radical vision of the world and a need for change with a very pragmatic, ‘this is what we can do next]” attitude, said her daughter-in-law, Diane Regas, president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land.
A drive to be a doctor despite the barriers of sexism and anti-Semitism
Lashof was born in 1926 and grew up in Philadelphia, where her mother, a Yiddish-speaking daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, always encouraged her to be a doctor.
“Joyce wanted to be a doctor from a very early age,” said daughter Carol Lashof, a playwright, educator, and theater producer. “I think she first wrote to a medical school in her very early teens to ask what classes she could take. At some point, she wanted to be a nurse and her mother said, ‘Why don’t you be a doctor?’”
She was up against both sexism and anti-Semitism as she applied to medical schools after graduating from Duke, where family lore has it that she was told the medical school wouldn’t accept any women or Jews. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “The year [Lashof] sought to enter medical school, 1945, was also the year that thousands of men were returning from World War II and were given priority admission to America’s colleges and universities. The number of women admitted to coeducational schools was limited, but she was accepted to the school that had been a long-time resource for women, the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania [later renamed Medical College of Pennsylvania].”
While in medical school, she met mathematician Richard Lashof, known as Dick, whose parents played bridge with her parents. They were married the week before she graduated, so her medical degree would show her married name. “Their radical politics was what they connected on early on,” Regas said of the match. “They were involved with SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in the ’60s in Chicago. Joan Baez came and sang at their house.” The union would produce three children and last till Dick’s death in 2010.
A need for community health care
After a stint as temporary assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and a consulting physician at the Student Health Services at the University of Chicago, where she was denied a tenure-track position because her supervisor feared she’d leave if her husband found a job elsewhere, Lashof joined the faculty of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine.
It was there that she began studying the health needs of the most poverty-stricken residents of Chicago, a population that had a 60% higher infant mortality rate and a 200% higher incidence of premature birth, among other health disparities.
This work focused on health equity would form the basis for her future professional life and led to the founding of Chicago’s Mile Square Health Center in 1967, the second Office of Economic Opportunity-funded community health center in the country and the accomplishment for which Lashof was most proud of, according to Regas. Mile Square still serves Chicago’s disenfranchised communities by providing comprehensive primary health care for both children and adults.
In 1973 Lashof was named the director of the state of Illinois Public Health Department, the first woman to head any state department of health.
Deanship at UC Berkeley
Lashof’s on-the-ground experience was a catalyst for change when she became dean of Berkeley Public Health in 1981.
Not only did she create new opportunities for women at the School and across public health, she also brought a new focus on social justice.
“The school has long had a strong reputation for good, hard research on major health problems,” said Dr. Meredith Minkler, professor emerita of health and social behavior at Berkeley Public Health, “but Joyce was the first one to take the spirit of the times and understand the need for a real focus on health and social justice, especially where Black Americans were concerned.”
Current Dean Michael C. Lu received his MS as part of the Joint Medical Program while Lashof was dean of the school. “She was the best role model an aspiring physician could ever hope to have,” he said. “Dean Lashof spent her career in medicine and public health fighting for health equity and social justice, two enduring values which continue to define what our school stands for today.”
“She was very outspoken about how it was immoral, bad, wrong, and terrible to have racial inequities in health or class inequities in health,” said Dr. Nancy Krieger, renowned professor of social epidemiology at Harvard University, who received her Ph.D. at Berkeley while Lashof was dean and considered her a mentor. “She was about countering victim-blaming analyses and seeing what social policies need to change.”
And she championed social justice in other ways, too. “When she was dean, we were fighting to get the University of California to divest in South Africa,” remembers Minkler. “We got close to 200 faculty to wear caps and gowns and walk across the campus to stop in front of the chancellors’ office. She was the only dean there.”
Lashof was also instrumental in the founding of the Berkeley Wellness Letter, a groundbreaking publication that offers consumers research-backed preventative health advice, with a percentage of subscription funds supporting graduate students.
After leaving Berkeley, Lashof went on to chair the Presidential Advisory Committee on the Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses and the Institute of Medicine Committee on Technologies for the Early Detection of Breast Cancer. In 1995, she received the Sedgwick Memorial Medal for Distinguished Service in Public Health from the American Public Health Association.
She continued to fight for justice until late in her life. In 2017, at the age of 91, she attended a protest in Alameda, California, carrying a sign that said “End the Muslim Ban Now.”
Although Lashof had a powerhouse career, what her former students and colleagues remember best about her is her warm personality, coupled with her humble, pragmatic approach.
“She was very warm as a person,” said Krieger. “She was able to be both fierce in her positions and also very warm. Where she came from was deeply believing in people’s fundamental dignity. She did it in a way that she had a sense of humor, a deep sense of warmth, and a long track record of being engaged in progressive political work.”
“She was a visionary and instrumental in so many of our careers,” said Dr. Brenda Eskanazi, professor emerita at Berkeley Public Health. “She shifted the tide for women at this school and I feel I owe my career to her. She was also an incredibly warm, caring, and kind person but she knew when to be strong and firm to get what she thought was important for the School—a great advocate.”
“She was just a great role model, both as an activist but also as a strong woman in a family relationship that worked,” said her son, Dan Lashof, director of the World Resources Institute.
Her family fondly remembers group summer vacations on Northern California’s Russian River and a close family bond that even led two of her adult children — with their spouses — to share a Berkeley house for a time.
“They would rent houses for a couple of weeks that we could all bring our kids to,” said Carol Lashof. “They were both very good about being the kind of parents that you like hanging out with.”
Lashof’s passion for social justice has infused the next generation of her family. Her son Dan is a lifelong climate warrior; daughter Judith fought for gay rights … and taught adults to read; and daughter Carol founded a theater company dedicated to “telling unheard stories of gender and power.” “That fight for justice has gone on to the next generation, each in its own way,” said Regas.
Dr. Lashof is survived by her daughter, Carol Lashof, Carol’s husband, Bill Newton, and their children, Elizabeth Sowerwine (Bill) and Erica Newton; her son, Dan Lashof, and his wife, Diane Regas, and their children, Matt Lashof-Sullivan (Meg), and children Cora and Jamie; Samuel Lashof; and Robin Lashof-Rigas (Maria Zimmerman); and her granddaughter Suma Lashof. She was predeceased by her daughter, Judith Lashof, and husband, Richard Lashof.