Beloved Cancer Researcher Passes After a Brief Illness

Retired UC San Francisco cancer researcher Lois Barth Epstein, MD, DSc, died on Feb. 6, after a brief illness. She was 81. Epstein was a leading contributor in the field of cancer research, a skilled artist, and an active member of the San Francisco Bay Area community.

An accomplished scientist and educator who trained and mentored hundreds of doctors and scientists, Epstein treated thousands of patients, presented at conferences around the world, and authored more than a hundred scholarly papers.

Lois Barth Epstein, MD, DSc

Her career began with a series of fellowships with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and Seattle. Epstein then moved to San Francisco and joined the Cancer Research Institute at UCSF, initially as a research physician and later becoming its associate director. She became a professor of the Department of Pediatrics in 1980, and eventually retired in 1996.

During her career as a physician-scientist, Epstein was a pioneer in the research of interferons – a set of proteins that play a critical role in fighting viral infections and regulating the immune system. The work she was most proud of was the development, with her husband and Dr. David Cox, of the first mouse model for Down Syndrome -- research that linked her expertise on interferon with her husband’s research in the field of genetics. This work, which they made freely available to researchers around the world, has been the basis for the huge advancement in the world's understanding of Down Syndrome and work towards treatments for that illness.

As important as her research was, Epstein placed equal or greater importance in training and mentoring other scientists, and in particular, female scientists. She trained more than forty students, fellows, and scientists in her laboratory, and served as a mentor or adviser to hundreds of others.

She served as a role model for other women in her ability to balance a prolific scientific career with her role as a mother and grandmother. Epstein’s artistic and intellectual pursuits and her active service to the local community helped balance her active life.

Following her retirement, Epstein reinvented herself as an artist, studying glass art at Pilchuck Glass School, The Studio at Corning, and the Hui Art Center. Her first work was a mosaic glass cello, the instrument her husband played. Later, the two of them developed a passion for making intricate and beautiful dollhouses, which they gave to their children and grandchildren. Her work supporting the local community earned her a place in the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002, and she continued to be active in community affairs until her final days.

Epstein was involved in many community activities in support of the arts and education. She was fundraising chairman for the Marin Youth Orchestra, a member of the board of directors of the Marin Symphony Association, and President of the Board of the Marin Dance Association. She was elected to the Marin Country’s Wednesday Morning Dialogue, a professional women’s group, and was director of the Pediatric Council Book Project at UCSF.

She was deeply involved in the Belvedere-Tiburon Library, acting as vice president of the Peninsula Library Foundation, director of their vehicle donation program, and chair of the Belvedere-Tiburon Library Agency. Her work as a both a scientific professional and an active member of the community was recognized in her election to the Marin Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002.

Epstein and her husband shared a passion for exploring new places, having visited most of the major countries of the world, for both work and for pleasure. On their travels, they assembled a collection of musical instruments that has been loaned to museums for special exhibitions.

Epstein was born on December 29, 1933 in Cambridge, MA, the daughter of Benjamin Barth and Mary Frances Perlmutter Barth. Her father was an immigrant from the Ukraine with a second grade education, and her mother’s parents had also come from Eastern Europe. Her mother encouraged her to become a doctor from an early age, singing to her at her first birthday party, “Jack and Jill went up the hill and you will be a doctor!” At Brookline High School, she fell in love with chemistry and the idea of helping people as a profession.

Epstein went to Radcliffe College, where in her freshmen year she met her husband and life partner, Charles Epstein, on the steps of Radcliffe's Barnard Hall on a blind date in February 1952.  Three months later he proposed to her, using a rolled-up cello string as a ring. She graduated cum laude with an A.B. in chemistry, in 1955, and entered Harvard Medical School as one of only eight women in a class of 125, in the fall of 1955. The two of them married in 1956, despite the urging of their parents to wait until graduation, and worked their way through medical school. Epstein graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1959, was a resident in pathology at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, and interned in medicine at the New England Center Hospital.

Epstein was a scientist, physician, artist, mother, sister, teacher, and friend to many. She was a giving, caring individual whose arms were open to embrace all she could of life and all the people she interacted with. Her approach towards life is perhaps best summed up by her favorite passage from a song by Nat King Cole, which said, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

She raised four children, and was a grandmother of six. Epstein was preceded in death by her husband, Charles. She is survived by her children, David Epstein and Abigail Lewis of Ossining, New York, Jonathan Epstein and Andrea Bruno of San Francisco, California, Paul Epstein and Jennifer Traub of Piedmont, California, and Joanna and Dan Bornstein of San Francisco, California. She is survived by six grandchildren -- Jeffrey, Kendra, Jacqueline and Genevieve Epstein, and Violet and Simon Traub-Epstein – and her brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law Herbert and Jean Epstein of Watertown, Massachusetts, and Edwin and Sandra Epstein of Berkeley, California.

Epstein's family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in her memory to support the Buck Institute for Age Research, the Belvedere-Tiburon Library, or Harvard Medical School. Donations can be sent to the Buck Institute on Age Research, 8001 Redwood Boulevard, Novato, CA 94945 (www.buckinstitute.org), to the Belvedere-Tiburon Library, 1501 Tiburon Blvd., Tiburon, CA 94920 (www.beltiblibrary.org) or to Harvard Medical School, Landmark Center, 401 Park Drive, Suite 22 West, Boston, MA 02215 (hms.harvard.edu)

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