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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Remembering Dr. Paul Epstein

Air Date: Week of December 2, 2011

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Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood looks back on the life of Paul Epstein, a physician and co-founder of Harvard’s Center for Global Health and the Environment. Dr. Epstein was among the first to make the links between infectious diseases such as Lyme’s Disease and West Nile Virus and the warmer and extreme weather events of climate change. He died last month.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: Well, shortly before the climate summit got underway came news that Dr. Paul Epstein had died. He was 67. Dr. Epstein was among the first to warn of a link between infectious disease and extreme weather events. Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood has our remembrance.

CURWOOD: I first interviewed Dr. Epstein almost twenty years ago in a cramped office at the Cambridge City Hospital Annex. He warned me about what he said were the clear and present public health dangers that we can expect from climate disruption.

We had come to interview him because Dr. Epstein was among the first to educate the public and the medical community about the links between the spread of infectious diseases like Lymes and West Nile and the warmer winters and extreme weather events of climate change. Here he is in the year 2003:

EPSTEIN: West Nile’s largest outbreaks in the 90s in Romania, in Russia, in Israel and in New York in 1999, were all associated with severe droughts. Heat in the atmosphere, in the oceans, is changing the water cycle, affecting the intensity, duration, and geographic patterns of precipitation. These are fundamental to where mosquitoes breed. So in addition to the warming, it’s these extremes and wide oscillations from droughts, punctuated by heavy rains, that are key to destabilizing the biological systems.

CURWOOD: Over the years, Paul Epstein moved out of his tiny office into larger quarters as co-founder of Harvard Medical School’s pioneering Center for Global Health and the Environment. And today, more than 60 medical schools offer courses similar to the popular ones that Dr. Epstein helped start at Harvard.


Dr. Paul Epstein. (Photo: Bruce Gellerman)

His teaching partner of more than 15 years, Professor James McCarthy, says Paul Epstein captivated and inspired students, and many found new career paths under his guidance. Dr. Epstein connected the dots between climate and disease by showing how chaos in the weather helps fast growing pests, such as rats and mosquitoes, as well as microbes and weeds.

With climate change, he said, allergy seasons grow longer and poison ivy grows faster. Dr. Epstein was also able to get some of the world’s biggest insurance companies to begin considering climate risks. But at heart, he was still a primary care physician.

The son of a New York City doctor, young Doctor Epstein headed for the clinics in the poor neighborhoods of Boston shortly after he finished his training. He and his wife Andy, a public health nurse, also volunteered in East Africa, taking their two young children, Ben and Jesse, on their missions in the 1970’s to help heal the poor.

Until October, family and friends believed modern technology would save Paul Epstein from lymphoma, much the way so many of us think that technology will somehow solve the climate crisis. Still, to the very end, Doctor Epstein had time to care.

At a memorial gathering for her father, his daughter Jesse told me she had come home to marry during his final weeks, and one day, her new husband injured his knee. Upon hearing this, Jesse reports, her father slowly arose from his chair without a word, went to the freezer for a package of frozen berries, wrapped the frozen pack on his new son-in- law’s leg with an Ace bandage, and shuffled back to his chair.

It was a graceful reminder that no matter how difficult our own situation may be, we can still help a relative, a friend, or an overheating planet. We will miss you, Doctor Paul Epstein, farewell.

BRUCE: Steve Curwood is Living on Earth’s executive producer.

[MUSIC: Abdullah Ibrahim “Moniebah/The Pilgrim” from Good News From Africa (Enja Records 1973).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead: New fields of coal and oil fuel fears in Brazil and Mozambique. Keep listening to Living on Earth!

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Robert Jospe’ “Mozambique” from Heart Beat (Random Chance Records 2006).]

 

 

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