Remembering Don Kennedy

It was so sad this week to learn of the news of Donald Kennedy’s death on April 21, 2020.

In addition to making key contributions to science, to Stanford, and to the nation, Don was one of the founders and early Directors of the Human Biology Program. I wrote to alumni on Friday to share the news of Don’s death and to ask them to share favorite memories of Don so that we could assemble these for his family and the larger HumBio family. It’s hard to describe the outpouring. 

One thing is clear, however. In message after message, alumni have described Don’s kindness, his support of their careers, his ability to build their confidence, and his way – despite his position and many commitments – of making each person feel listened to. It’s interesting what really matters, isn’t it?

I met Don when I was a graduate student and took a course in ethics with him that was required for Biology PhD students. I expected something pretty dull (not really knowing who Don was). It turned out to be one of the best classes I ever took. Don was unfailingly vibrant, funny, and interesting. We had to write a final paper on an ethics question of interest to us. I chose, of all things, the controversy over the use of screening mammograms among women 40-50 years of age. This was an odd choice given that I was doing my PhD in ecosystem ecology, but guidelines on screening had recently changed (this was in the mid-90s) and there was a fair amount of furor in the press around this. Don kindly – but clearly – pointed out that it wasn’t really an ethics-focused paper and docked some points, but let me pursue it as he could see I was hooked. That was my first true exposure to epidemiology; the class thus truly shaped the rest of my life. 

After the class ended, I was always surprised and delighted that Don would recognize me when we were both out running at the Dish. It was hard for me to imagine someone of his stature remembering a lowly graduate student from among the many students he had taught. It always made me feel important, somehow.

I was fortunate this past autumn to have had the chance to visit with Don. I told him how important that class was to my life and then we talked some about Human Biology. I expected that there would be more visits; it’s really sad to know that there won’t be.

I understand that Don was a very keen birder. On the day that he died, a pair of Western tanagers visited our garden, which I had never seen in our garden before. Here is a picture of one of these beauties. It’s nice to connect them with Don in my mind, somehow.;_male_on_branch.jpg

Published by Lianne Kurina

I am an epidemiologist, the proud director of the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University, and a very keen horsewoman.

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