Patricia Buffler, renowned childhood cancer researcher, dies at 75

BERKELEY —

Patricia Buffler, an internationally esteemed researcher known for her work on some of the world’s largest studies on childhood leukemia and environmental health, and a former dean at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, has died.

Patricia Buffler, professor of epidemiology and dean emerita of the School of Public Health (Jim Block photo)

Buffler died of a stroke while in her campus office Thursday evening, Sept. 26. She was 75.

At the time of her death, Buffler, who held UC Berkeley’s Kenneth and Marjorie Kaiser Chair in Cancer Epidemiology, was leading several large research programs related to childhood leukemia and other childhood cancers. Among them is the California Childhood Leukemia Study, which Buffler launched in 1995 to investigate the relationship between diet, genes, infections and environmental exposures and the development of leukemia. With over 1,300 cases of childhood leukemia included to date, the study is one of the largest in the world, with an unparalleled breadth of exposure and genetic data.

Buffler was also principal investigator of the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment, funded in 2010 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the role of prenatal and early life exposures to carcinogens in the development of leukemia.

Over the years, Buffler’s studies yielded findings that include the potential protective effect of attending daycare as well as the increased risk from diagnostic X-rays in the development of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common childhood cancer. 

“No question she was one of the world’s leading researchers in childhood leukemia, but also in cancer epidemiology,” said Arthur Reingold, UC Berkeley professor and head of epidemiology. “It is standard now to look at the interaction of genetic determinants and environmental factors in disease, but Pat was one of the first people to apply it to leukemia. Because of her work, we now have a better understanding of a rare disease. Her loss is enormous.”  

A unifying force

Colleagues credited Buffler’s skills in leadership and organization in bringing disparate groups together to advance research. Reingold noted that because childhood leukemia is relatively rare, Buffler recognized that it was critical to form large networks and international collaborations that could yield powerful data.

To that end, Buffler established in 2006 the Childhood Leukemia International Consortium, a widely acclaimed international consortium for studies of childhood leukemia funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Children with Leukaemia Foundation (now Children with Cancer Foundation). This group currently involves more than 30 investigators representing 22 epidemiologic studies of childhood leukemia being conducted in 14 countries.

Buffler was scheduled to travel to France the day after she died to chair the consortium’s annual meeting, starting on Tuesday, Oct. 1.

“Pat has unified people nationally and internationally in the field of children’s health and exposure to toxins,” said Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and another leading expert on the environmental influences on children’s health. “She was such a leader in her field, and such an example of grace and intelligence, especially for the women in our department.”

While best known for her work on childhood cancers, Buffler’s work covered a broad range of environmental health issues, including the effects of secondhand tobacco smoke and electromagnetic radiation. In the 1980s, Buffler chaired a scientific advisory panel formed by the Semiconductor Industry Association to evaluate the risks of miscarriage among its workers.

“I have never seen anyone so skillfully negotiate such incredibly tricky situations that helped get industry buy-in for what the researchers needed to do,” said panel member S. Katharine Hammond, UC Berkeley professor of environmental health sciences, who was a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts at the time. “I was in awe watching her.”

Hammond noted that, as a result of the panel’s final report in 1992, the industry discontinued use of the most toxic chemicals.

The path to UC Berkeley

Buffler was born Aug. 1, 1938, in Doylestown, Pa. When she enrolled in the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., she became the first person in her family to go to college. She graduated in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and biology, and then moved to New York where she worked as a public health nurse in Harlem.

While she was in New York, Buffler met her future husband, Richard Buffler, a U.S. Navy communications officer stationed in Rhode Island, on a blind date. The couple married in 1962 and soon moved to California. While Richard Buffler obtained his Ph.D. in geology at UC Berkeley, Buffler worked as a public health nurse in Alameda County. She then earned her master’s in public health in 1965, and a Ph.D. in epidemiology in 1973, both at UC Berkeley.

From 1974 to 1991, Buffler held various faculty positions at the University of Texas, starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health in Galveston, and leaving as a full professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health in Houston. While in Texas, she also directed the Epidemiology Research Unit at the university. 

Buffler began her distinguished 22-year tenure at UC Berkeley in 1991, when she joined the faculty as professor of epidemiology and dean of the School of Public Health. As dean, a position she held for seven years, Buffler led the closure of old programs, such as Health Education, and started new ones, including Health and Social Behavior and Public Health Nutrition. She also formed the Dean’s Policy Advisory Council and launched the school’s annual Public Health Heroes Awards.

A mentor and advocate

As much as Buffler was admired and respected for her research contributions, she was loved for the way she mentored and advised junior faculty, colleagues and students at the School of Public Health. Buffler helped guide grant development for junior faculty, lobbied for election to the prestigious Institute of Medicine for seasoned researchers, advised on merit and tenure cases and hosted well-received lunches for women faculty in her department.

“When it came to helping her faculty colleagues, the school or the campus, she was never one to say no,” said Lisa Barcellos, UC Berkeley associate professor of epidemiology. “She rarely took a sabbatical. She was finally planning to take one next year, and I think it would’ve been her first in 10 years. She was one of a kind: a role model and friend, with a wonderful sense of humor. Her death is such a huge loss.”

Buffler’s high regard for her students was evident in a popular Introduction to Epidemiology course that, by all accounts, she loved to teach. Buffler and Barcellos, her co-instructor, established mandatory 10-minute office visits with each student at the beginning of the semester. Each spring, Buffler also would post individual photos of the students on her office wall to learn their names.  

Among Buffler’s long list of career achievements are membership in the Institute of Medicine and the American College of Epidemiology, and being named a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was also president-elect of the International Epidemiological Association.

She served as advisor to the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. EPA and the National Research Council, among others. Buffler also served on scientific advisory boards of several major corporations and industries, including the Scientific Advisory Panel on Electromagnetic Health Effects of the Electric Power Research Institute and the DuPont Company’s Epidemiologic Review Board.

In 1985, Buffler was named by the state governor to the Texas Women Hall of Fame.

“While Pat’s accomplishments in the world of scientific research and academia were enormous, her greatest accomplishment – and what she cared about most in life – was her family,” said her husband of 51 years, Richard Buffler. “Nothing was more important to her.”

Buffler is survived by Richard, who shared homes with her in Berkeley, Calif. and Santa Fe, N.M.; son Martyn Buffler of Austin, Texas; daughter Monique Does of Berkeley; and five grandchildren.

The School of Public Health is planning a campus memorial for Sunday, Nov. 10. Details on the exact time and location will be posted on the school’s website when available.  

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, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360. The name of the fund should be noted on the check. Those wishing to donate online may do so by going to http://givetocal.berkeley.edu/buffler/.

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