In Memoriam: Zena Athene Stein, 1922-2021

Zena Stein, professor emerita of epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, has died. She was 99 years old.

Dr. Stein and her late husband and longtime collaborator, Mervyn Susser, chair of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School from 1966 to 1978, were seminal figures in the establishment of the discipline of epidemiology. Their creative and rigorous research brought new insights to understanding mental health, reproductive health, and the social determinants of health. Their groundbreaking work on starvation during pregnancy laid the foundations for the field that has come to be known as life-course epidemiology.

A native of Durban, South Africa, Dr. Stein attended the University of Cape Town. She received her medical training at Witwatersrand University.

Active in the struggle against apartheid, the couple eventually left South Africa for England and then the United States. They joined the faculty at Columbia University in 1966. In 1968, Dr. Stein was also named director of the Epidemiology Research Unit in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, a position she held for 30 years.

Stein and Susser may be best known for launching a series of rigorous studies of the Dutch Famine, a nine-month period of malnutrition during the Second World War. In a 1972 paper that upset the prevailing orthodoxy, they found that babies exposed to famine prenatally were no more likely to have cognitive deficits. Subsequent research found that babies conceived during the famine’s peak had elevated rates of congenital nervous system anomalies, including neural tube defects. These results helped lead to clinical trials to investigate the role of folate in pregnancy, and eventually to a federal recommendation that all women who could become pregnant consume folic acid daily.


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