Patricia Buffler, 1938-2013

A leading researcher on childhood cancers has died

November 28, 2013

Patricia Buffler was born on 1 August 1938 in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and studied nursing and biology at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, moving to New York on graduation in 1960 to work as a public health nurse in Harlem.

Two years later, she crossed the country to take up a similar position in Alameda County, California before returning to the academy for a master’s in public health (1965) and a PhD in epidemiology in 1973, both at the University of California, Berkeley. Although she would go on to spend most of her career at Berkeley, in 1974 Professor Buffler took a job as assistant professor at the University of Texas’ department of preventive medicine and community health, rising to full professor of epidemiology. She also directed the Epidemiology Research Unit and, in 1985, was honoured by the state governor by being inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame.

In 1991, Professor Buffler took on a larger role as dean of the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. She was to remain there until her death, latterly as Kenneth and Marjorie Kaiser chair in cancer epidemiology, overseeing some of the largest research programmes on leukaemia that have ever been carried out.

The California Childhood Leukemia Study, for example, began in 1995 and has examined more than 1,300 cases to elucidate the precise contributions of diet, genes, infections and environmental factors to the development of the disease. Equally significant is the work undertaken since 2010 at the Center for Integrative Research on Childhood Leukemia and the Environment, where Professor Buffler served as principal investigator. Among her crucial findings was evidence that X-rays increase the likelihood of the commonest childhood cancer.

Since leukaemia is nonetheless rare in children, progress is largely dependent on collaborative global research networks. In 2006, Professor Buffler set up the Childhood Leukemia International Consortium, now encompassing 22 studies in 14 countries. She was widely admired for the diplomatic finesse she brought to an often delicate task. For Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology, she was not only “a leader in her field” but “such an example of grace and intelligence, especially for the women in our department” – women she often brought together for faculty lunches.

Professor Buffler died of a stroke in her campus office on 26 September and is survived by her husband Richard, a son, a daughter and five grandchildren.

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