Patricia Buffler, a world-class researcher and dean emeritus of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, died from a stroke in her office Thursday. She was 75 years old.
Buffler, known affectionately as “Pat” by colleagues and family, was a leader in all of her occupations, which ranged from epidemiologist to advocate to homemaker.
As an epidemiologist, Buffler pioneered research in childhood leukemia and other cancers. Her many initiatives included the California Childhood Leukemia Study, launched in 1995 to examine how genes, diet and environmental exposure relate to the development of leukemia in juveniles. To date, the study remains one of the largest in the world.
Although Buffler was distinguished in her field, colleagues said she never concerned herself with status. Lisa Barcellos, a campus associate professor of epidemiology, first came under Buffler’s mentorship 11 years ago and was surprised by her affable personality, which she calls “rare in academia.”
“She was warm, personable, gracious,” Barcellos said. “She had a wonderful sense of humor.”
Buffler began her career when she enrolled at the Catholic University of America, going against her father’s wishes and becoming the first person in her family to attend college.
“Her father didn’t want her to go to college,” her husband, Richard Buffler, said. “And if she did, he wanted her to study something practical. So she chose medicine.”
While attending university, Buffler’s charisma quickly distinguished itself. Classmates elected her homecoming queen one year, and she briefly dated actor Jon Voight, her husband said.
After graduating in 1960, Buffler moved to New York, where she worked as a public health nurse. She later met her husband on a blind date arranged by one of his friends. The two married in 1962 and moved to California, where Buffler earned her doctorate in epidemiology in 1973.
“She was told, ‘We don’t have many women in public health,’ ” Richard Buffler remembered.
After holding various faculty positions at the University of Texas, Buffler returned to UC Berkeley as a professor of epidemiology and dean of the School of Public Health. She became the second woman in the school’s history to hold the latter position, according to Arthur Reingold, a UC Berkeley professor and head of the campus division of epidemiology.
During her 22-year tenure, Buffler was a strong advocate for women in science and health, often offering professional and personal guidance.
“I was surprised at how many women had a story on how Pat had helped them,” said Amy Kyle, a UC Berkeley associate adjunct professor.
Buffler is survived by her husband; her two children, Martyn and Monique; and her five grandchildren.
“She was always thinking ahead for their welfare,” her husband said. “That’s who Pat was. She never stopped helping, for them or for anyone.”
The campus School of Public Health plans to host a campus memorial Nov. 10.