Abby Lippman, 1939-2017

McGill University campaigner on women’s health issues remembered

February 1, 2018
Abby Lippman
Source: Courtesy Lippman Family

A prominent researcher and activist in the field of women’s health has died.

Abby Lippman was born in Brooklyn, New York, in December 1939, studied comparative literature at Cornell University and became deeply involved in the women’s movement. In 1973, she moved to Montreal, where she was to spend the rest of her life (although she never lost her thick Brooklyn accent), and studied for a PhD in human genetics at McGill University. She would go on to make her whole career there.

After joining the department of epidemiology, biostatistics and occupational health as an assistant professor in 1979, Professor Lippman was promoted to associate professor in 1984 and full professor in 1992. Shortly after retiring in 2010, she was made emerita. Remaining highly active, she continued to assist students and kept working at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, an interdisciplinary college within Concordia University dedicated to women’s studies.

A commitment to empowerment and to helping women challenge biomedical and patriarchal models of healthcare was a central aspect of Professor Lippman’s work, and she served as president of the Canadian Women’s Health Coalition. She was highly critical of what she called “geneticisation” (giving undue importance to genes as determinants of human health) and “neo-medicalisation” (the tendency for the pharmaceutical industry to “create” and catalogue previously unknown illnesses). And she always stressed the need for genetic counselling to take account of the views and wishes of the people receiving it.

A tireless advocate for the causes she believed in, Professor Lippman was never afraid of confrontation and continued campaigning until the end of her life. In a 2016 letter to The Globe and Mail, for example, she noted that commercial genetic tests claiming to “reveal potential risks for a range of health problems or even family ties are tempting many people to send in biological samples, not knowing that the results they may get are highly questionable, if not just wrong, or that these results – or merely having been tested – could themselves cause insurance or employment problems for them…the public debates about whether genetic testing will actually provide the promises of ‘precision medicine’ haven’t even properly begun”.

Daniel Weinstock, director of the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy, described Professor Lippman as “truly fearless and indefatigable in her work for social justice, be it in our own society or internationally”.

Professor Lippman died on 26 December 2017 and is survived by a son, a daughter and two grandchildren.

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