Dr. Joyce C. Lashof, who fought for health equity and broke barriers as the first woman to head a state public health department and the first to serve as dean of the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, died on June 4 at an assisted living community in Berkeley. She was 96.
Her daughter, Carol Lashof, said the cause was heart failure.
Over a long and varied career, friends and family members said, Dr. Lashof always prioritized the fight for social justice. In the 1960s, she founded a community health center to provide medical care in a low-income section of Chicago. After her appointment as director of the Illinois Department of Public Health in 1973, the year of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision codifying the constitutional right to abortion, Dr. Lashof established protocols to provide women access to safe abortion in the state, Carol Lashof said.
In the 1980s, Dr. Lashof leveraged her powers as a top university administrator to organize initiatives to fight discrimination against people with AIDS and to protest Apartheid in South Africa.
She championed social justice outside of her professional life as well, taking her family on so many marches for peace and civil rights in the 1960s that they came to view mass protests as “a family outing,” her son, Dan, recalled. Joan Baez once performed in their living room in Chicago, the family said, for a fund-raiser for the anti-segregation Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.
“From the start, her work in medicine and public health was deeply animated by a profound commitment to issues of social justice in our society,” said Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology at Harvard who worked on AIDS policy with Dr. Lashof as a Berkeley graduate student in the 1980s. “That included issues around racism, that included issues around social class, that included issues around gender.”
After a brief tenure as a deputy assistant secretary at the federal Department of Health, Education and Welfare and a longer tenure as assistant director of the Office of Technology Assessment, she was appointed to run Berkeley’s School of Public Health in 1981. In that post, Dr. Krieger said, she was not content to limit her scope to administrative tasks.
At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1986, for example, she set her sights on defeating Proposition 64, a California ballot initiative spearheaded by the far-right political agitator Lyndon LaRouche that would have mandated mass testing for AIDS and, critics feared, mass quarantines.
Dr. Lashof secured the cooperation of all four public health schools in the California university system to prepare a policy analysis on the initiative, which Dr. Krieger said it was their first such joint project. The analysis, presented to the California State Assembly, demonstrated the potentially harmful effects of the measure and, Dr. Krieger said, contributed to his defeat.
Dr. Lashof’s friends said she approached activism with the mind of a scientist. “It was about always wanting to bring the evidence to bear on what the problems were that were causing health inequities,” Dr. Krieger said.
Those efforts often started at the neighborhood level. In 1967, Dr. Lashof, then on the faculty of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, opened the Mile Square Health Center in Chicago, a community health clinic financed by the federal Office of Equal Opportunity that provided medical care to an impoverished area of the city.
“She was one of the key people in helping get community health centers federally funded and viable in this country,” Dr. Krieger said.
The Mile Square center, the second such community health center in the country, never achieved the same level of renown as the first, in Mound Bayou, Miss., which made Dr. H. Jack Geiger, one of its founders, nationally known.
“Joyce was often overshadowed, in particular by men who were more charismatic at a time when sexism was more common,” said Meredith Minkler, a professor emerita of health and social behavior at Berkeley who worked with Dr. Lashof on social justice issues over the years. But she wasn’t concerned about being in the limelight. She was concerned about creating change.”
Joyce Ruth Cohen was born on March 27, 1926, in Philadelphia, the daughter of Harry Cohen, a certified public accountant whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, and Rose (Brodsky) Cohen, a homemaker who was born in Ukraine and served as a volunteer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helping settle German Jewish refugees in the United States during and after World War II.
“Her mother clearly instilled in her an ambition to take a full role in society,” Dan Lashof said. She had been interested in medicine from an early age, and at some point said she wanted to be a nurse. Her mother said, ‘Well, if you’re going to be a nurse and do all that work, you might as well be a doctor and be in charge.'”
But after graduating from Duke University with honors in 1946, she found her path to top graduate medical programs blocked. Many then restricted the number of Jewish applicants they accepted and, as the war ended, were giving admissions priority to men returning from the armed services, according to the National Library of Medicine. She finally earned a spot at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
She married Richard K. Lashof, a theoretical mathematician, in 1950. By the mid-1950s, both she and her husband were junior faculty members at the University of Chicago. In 1960, she once again faced gender discrimination when the department chairman denied her a promotion.
“The chair informed me that he could not recommend a woman for a tenure-track appointment, especially a married woman, because she would undoubtedly follow her husband wherever he would go,” Dr. Lashof said at a health conference in 1990. “C’est la vie.”
Undeterred, she joined the faculty at the University of Illinois College of Medicine. There she was appointed to direct a study of health needs, a project that led to her work developing community health centers.
In addition to her children, Dr. Lashof is survived by six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2010. Their eldest daughter, Judith Lashof, died of breast cancer in 2018.
In the early 1980s, Dr. Lashof donned a cap and gown to march in a protest urging the University of California to divest from South Africa. She was, Dr. Minkler said, the only campus dean to do so.
“She would stick her neck out,” Dr. Minkler said. “It didn’t matter who she needed to cross.”
When she was 91, Dr. Lashof carried a sign that read “End the Muslim Ban Now” at a protest in Alameda, Calif., against the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the United States by citizens of five predominantly Muslim countries.
Towards the end of her life, Dr. Lashof was heartened by the many advances in social justice that had been made over the years, Carol Lashof said. But in recent months, she was aghast to hear that the Supreme Court was considering overturning Roe v. Wade.
“She was absolutely baffled,” Carol Lashof said. “She just looked at me and said, ‘How could that have happened?'”
Dr. Lashof’s many accomplishments were all the more significant because she was a woman.
“Breaking numerous glass ceilings was critical in her career,” Dr. Minkler said, “And it was one of her most important legacies.”