In Memoriam: Zena Athene Stein

November 10, 2021
Portrait of Zena Athene Stein
Zena Athene Stein

By Louise Kuhn, MPH, PhD

July 7, 1922 –November 7, 2021

We mourn the loss of our mentor, colleague and friend, founding member of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center, and legend in her own time – Zena Stein. She deeply touched the lives of many of us, inspiring us to use both our hearts and our heads to reduce the burden of suffering associated with disease. An incisive intellect with passionate curiosity, she swept up generations of students, colleagues and friends with her vision to undertake rigorous science to tackle the pressing health issues of the day. She was fearless and fierce, doggedly challenged injustice and ignorance, and never let orthodoxy or dogma stand in her way.

Zena Stein was born in Durban, South Africa, into a family deeply engaged with the world and the life of the mind. Her father was a mathematician and she was an adventurer, loving the outdoors and the mountains, literature, poetry and history. She studied History at the University of Cape Town, graduating with a Masters in 1942. She found a way to get involved with the war efforts, conducting psychometric testing for the Allied army in South Africa. Around this time, she entered the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg and graduated with her medical degree in 1950. Over this period, Afrikaner nationalism had just been voted in and apartheid supplanted and codified racial oppression originating with British colonialism.

By this stage, she had married her brother’s friend Meryn Susser, and together with likeminded intellectuals and activists found ways to use their work - the practice of medicine - to challenge oppression. They established one of the first community-based primary health care clinics in Alexandra Township, a deeply impoverished urban neighborhood in central Johannesburg. Even white activists at this time in South Africa’s history put their lives and their careers at risk through this type of political engagement. By 1959, Zena had moved her family to Manchester, England, and by 1966 to New York City and to more than half of century of engagement with Columbia University.

One always recalls the pair, Zena and Mervyn, the perfect power couple, united in spirit and intellect, strengthening each other, supporting each other, yet each so distinct in their strengths and weaknesses. The birth of the discipline of epidemiology that occurred over this time was not a straightforward one and while establishing the Department of Epidemiology in the School of Public Health, Mervyn went on to establish the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center in 1977 within the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Untangling the separate contributions of each is difficult. A colleague once shared with me that they thought Zena was the scout, seeking out new terrain, coming up with new ideas, looking for opportunities; and Mervyn was the heavy artillery bringing in the analytic methods, the meticulous attention to theory. Separately, they were strong. Together they were unstoppable.

They chose Richard Mayeux as the heir apparent for the Sergievsky Center. He has certainly lived up to their expectation, building the vibrant intellectual community of researchers, deeply committed to using science to address the problems of ill health in our society that the Center is today.

My own piece of this story begins in 1991. With the release of Mandela from prison and the lifting of the academic boycott, Zena and Mervyn were scouting around South Africa for hungry, young cubs eager to learn about epidemiology. HIV had exploded onto the public health scene in New York City but was still a distant specter in the African setting. I arrived wide-eyed in New York City on a GRA they had arranged for me and was challenged and stimulated to think more carefully and thoroughly about my work than I had ever thought possible. While Zena’s warmth and generosity softened the blows, she always wanted me to go further and deeper into understanding issues. Is that all you can conclude? Where does that take us? Can’t you do more? She instructed Richard to hire me and he complied. None of us liked to argue with her because her disarming charm and wit would always have us eating out of her hand, anyway, and we knew she’d always get her own way.

She maintained her passion for life to the end, still writing me email about politics and COVID, and integrating, in her oh so human way, the personal and the professional. She remains an inspiration to so many of us. May her spirit fly free.