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Honoring a public-health legend
SPH library takes name of Sheldon Margen, renowned professor emeritus, bibliophile, and co-founder of the Wellness Letter

| 08 October 2004


Following a series of heartfelt tributes, Sheldon Margen took to the podium to offer up thanks and humor to devoted friends, colleagues, and family members as the School of Public Health library was renamed in his honor. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Not all renaming ceremonies are created equal, as an Oct. 1 event in the Warren Hall lobby made clear. The occasion was intended to celebrate the renaming of the campus’s public-health library in honor of Professor Emeritus Sheldon Margen. And though the ceremony featured the requisite tag-team of speakers, the emotion palpable in the crowded lobby raised the event above all clichés of the form.

The library in 42 Warren Hall — one of only six standalone public-health libraries in the nation — now bears the name of the Berkeley icon who entered UCLA at age 15, earned a master’s degree and a medical degree by the time he was 25, started the first computerized clinical laboratory west of the Rockies, and conducted pioneering research in the 1960s and ’70s that became the foundation of the recommended dietary allowances now found on packaged food in every U.S. grocery store.

The world-renowned nutritionist, now 85, is perhaps best known, however, as co-founder of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, which for 20 years has provided the public with scientifically based information on health promotion and disease prevention. Stephen Shortell, dean of public health, set the tone for the tribute by both toasting Margen’s “foresight and prescience” in starting the Wellness Letter and describing a dean’s colloquium at which an un-kempt-looking man he assumed was a street person asked a very provocative question. When Shortell inquired afterwards about the individual, he was told “that’s Shelly Margen; he’s a legend.” Associate Chancellor John Cummins, who has known Margen for a quarter of a century, placed him “in the category with Clark Kerr” in terms of his far-reaching impact on society.

Sheldon’s ‘seminars’

According to several speakers, the Wellness Letter’s reputation for thoroughness and accuracy can be attributed to Margen and the quality of his intellect — his intense curiosity, passion for unearthing information from books and libraries, and photographic memory.

Joyce Lashof, dean emeritus of public health, described her longtime collaboration with Margen on the Wellness Letter, each issue of which is put to bed at a final marathon attended by participants from Berkeley and the newsletter’s New York publishing house. Lashof described these sessions as “listening to Shelly run a seminar on every one of those articles,” often citing obscure but relevant articles by year. “Being part of the Wellness Letter was a high point of my deanship. I still come back for our monthly closing ‘seminars’ with Sheldon; they’re unbeatable.”

The newsletter’s publisher, Rodney Friedman, offered a similar account of Margen disappearing from these sessions, sometimes for several hours, to scour campus libraries for a verifying citation, and returning at last with “the book” in hand, so that “the Wellness Letter could finally close.”


Professor Emeritus Sheldon Margen and family display a plaque in his honor presented at the renaming of the public-health library. Left to right: Margen’s wife, Jeanne, sons David and Peter, grandson Jared, son Claude, and Margen (seated). (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Margen’s personal physician, John Swartzberg, succeeded Margen as chair of the Wellness Letter editorial board in 2001. “Those are shoes I could never fill,” he said, “but I certainly feel proud to walk in them.” Other tributes came from University Librarian Tom Leonard; Debbie Jan, head of the public-health library; Barbara Abrams, public health associate dean for student affairs, who counts herself among Margen’s “huge stable” of “very loyal [former] doctoral students”; and Wellness Letter managing editor Dale Ogar, who has worked with Margen at Berkeley for 33 years.

Namesake takes the stage

All that was lead-up to Margen himself, who accepted an honorary plaque and a check; he promptly turned over the latter to Tom Leonard to benefit the Library. (Since retiring from UC in 1989, Margen has worked full-time on the Wellness Letter and sat on departmental committees, never accepting remuneration for these contributions.)

Having been ill for some time, it was with effort, but evident pleasure, that Margen — dressed in a hip, gold-colored tunic (he rarely dons coat and tie) — took center stage for more than 15 minutes to offer love bouquets of his own to the family, colleagues, and friends shoehorned into the lobby outside the Sheldon Margen Public Health Library.

“When I die, there will probably be some sort of a memorial service, and I will not be there to see it. That’s a heck of a situation,” he wisecracked. Every memorial service, he said, involves a parade of speakers calling the person who died a wonderful person. “They never did anything bad in their life.… You never hear anyone say, ‘Thank God that they’re not here any longer!’”

This day’s tribute, Margen said, was as close as he would get to “putting my ashes together” to witness how those he loved, and who loved him, would someday gather to speak of him.