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Sheldon Margen, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health nutrition, dies at 85

 Sheldon Margen
Sheldon Margen (Jane Scherr photo)
 

– Dr. Sheldon Margen, professor emeritus of public health, known for his groundbreaking work in nutritional sciences and for co-founding the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter, died Saturday, Dec. 18. He was 85.

Margen died at his home in Berkeley after a 22-month battle with cancer.

Margen made his mark in the field of nutritional sciences early in his career at UC Berkeley. In 1962, he began working with Doris Calloway, UC Berkeley professor of nutrition, to create the "Penthouse," one of the first research centers in the country designed to study human nutrition and metabolism. The facility was called the "Penthouse" because it was housed on the top floor of Morgan Hall on campus.

Along with Calloway, who died in 2001, Margen directed more than 20 human nutrition studies on a wide range of subjects, including protein, energy and trace mineral requirements of healthy adults. The results of this work -- which included detailed studies of food intake and energy expenditure of volunteers housed at the "Penthouse" research center -- ultimately formed the basis for many of the dietary recommendations that are required on food labels today.

"There are few people in life who have had such a dramatic impact on the lives of so many others. Shelly was one of those people," said John Cummins, UC Berkeley associate chancellor and a longtime friend of Margen's.

Margen was considered one of the world's foremost experts in nutritional sciences, particularly in the areas of endocrinology and biochemistry, but he was also highly regarded for his expertise in the area of bioethics and what ultimately became known in the public health field as "wellness."

In 1984, Margen joined publisher Rodney Friedman and Dr. Joyce Lashof, professor and dean emerita of the School of Public Health, to co-found the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They had the goal of producing a consumer-friendly health promotion and disease prevention newsletter.

"He felt that the mission of knowledge and science was to better people's lives," said Friedman. "He was a great teacher and to be around him was to learn in the sweetest possible way."

The UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, which just celebrated its 20th year of publication, is now one of the most highly respected publications of its kind. The newsletter has a circulation of more than 300,000 and has generated nearly $11 million in royalties to date.

It was Margen who insisted that all proceeds from the newsletter be used to directly benefit students at the School of Public Health, including the establishment of an endowment to support students in perpetuity.

"Without Shelly there would have been no Wellness Letter," said Lashof. "He loved people and he dedicated himself to making life better for everyone. He was the most remarkable man I ever met, not only because of his great intellect, but because he was a great teacher and a marvelous human being. It was a rare privilege to have worked with him."

Born in Chicago, Ill., on May 19, 1919, Margen moved to Southern California with his parents as a young child. He was a voracious reader with a photographic memory, and he skipped a number of grades in elementary and high school.

A profile of Margen written by longtime friend and colleague, Dale Ogar, managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, and published earlier this year by the School of Public Health, says that "at the age of 13 (Margen) had read the works of Euclid and was arguing with his high school geometry teacher over how to solve theorems."

"He was brilliant, generous and loving in a way that nobody seems to have time for anymore," said Ogar. "In over 32 years that we worked together, no student ever got turned away, no idea was too outrageous, no project was too difficult, no injustice was ignored."

Margen earned his bachelor's degree in zoology at 19 and his master's degree in zoology and experimental embryology at 20, both from UCLA. Four years later, in 1943, he earned his M.D., graduating at the top of his medical school class at UC San Francisco.

The following year, Margen married Jeanne Sholtz, a highly regarded pianist he had met when he was a teenager sharing the same piano teacher.

But Margen's first two years of married life were spent apart from his wife as he served in France and Germany during World War II. From 1944 to 1946, he served as a doctor with the U.S. Army Medical Corps, where he rose in ranks from lieutenant to captain.

After he returned to the United States, Margen held various clinical positions at both UC and county medical centers, and was a practicing physician in the Bay Area. From 1968 to 1974, he served as founder and president of Berkeley-based Solano Laboratories, which he turned into the first fully automated and computerized clinical laboratory in the western United States.

His first faculty position at UC Berkeley was as a lecturer in the School of Social Welfare, where he taught from 1956 to 1964. He also held concurrent positions as a biochemist and then lecturer at UCSF's Department of Biochemistry between 1960 and 1970. In 1962, he was appointed associate professor in human nutrition at the Department of Nutritional Sciences, part of UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. He became a full professor in 1964 and was appointed chair of that department in 1970.

In 1979, Margen moved to UC Berkeley's School of Public Health as professor and head of the school's nutrition program. During his tenure as chair, he is credited with revitalizing the doctoral program in public health nutrition.

Over the course of his career, Margen served on numerous committees and editorial boards. He co-chaired the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences and was a consultant to the McGovern Senate Select Committee on Diet and Disease. He served as chair of the U.S. Japan Malnutrition Panel of the National Institutes of Health, and as a consultant to the Agency for International Development, the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization and the government of India.

He retired from UC Berkeley in 1989 at the age of 70, the same year he received the Berkeley Citation. After retirement, he volunteered to chair the Peace and Conflict Studies program from 1988 to 1992, and continued to head the editorial board of the Wellness Letter until 2001. It was more than full-time work, but he refused to accept payment for any of his contributions.

"Even though Shelly has left our lives, his guiding principles of integrity, honesty and healing the world will always be with me," said Dr. John Swartzberg, Margen's personal physician who succeeded him in the position of editorial board chair of the Wellness Letter in 2001.

In addition to his many academic accomplishments, Margen shared a passion for music with his family. He was also known as a champion of progressive causes, working tirelessly throughout his life for social justice around the world.

His sons, David and Peter, recalled that during the Vietnam War, Margen took them to an anti-war march in San Francisco. They remarked that their father, who had shunned suits and ties all his life, wore a suit to the demonstration. They said that Margen wanted to make the point that "it's not just the hippies" who were against the war.

In October 2004, the School of Public Health Library was named after Margen in recognition of his contributions to the school and to the university. Although he was ill, he attended the naming ceremony and remarked that the event was as close as he would get to attending his own memorial service.

Margen is survived by his wife, Jeanne, of Berkeley; three sons, Claude, Peter and David, all of Berkeley; and two grandsons. Another son, Paul, died in 2003.

The family is planning a private memorial ceremony for relatives and close friends. A public memorial service at UC Berkeley is being planned for January or February 2005.

At the request of the family, donations in Margen's memory can be made to the organizations Doctors Without Borders, Amnesty International and Planned Parenthood.