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UC Berkeley Press Release

Don Minkler, champion of family planning and professor emeritus of public health, dies at 85

– Dr. Donald H. Minkler, professor emeritus of maternal and child health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a renowned leader in women's health and family planning, has died at the age of 85.

Minkler died of Alzheimer's disease at Salem Lutheran Home in Oakland on Friday, May 4, just hours after his 61st wedding anniversary.

Don Minkler
Don Minkler (John Minkler photo)

Known as a champion of women's reproductive health, Minkler was actively involved in promoting and implementing family planning services, first as a private physician, and then later as a public health researcher and educator.

"His death is a great loss," said Dr. Philip Lee, former chancellor and professor emeritus of UC San Francisco (UCSF), and former assistant secretary for health and scientific affairs at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. "He was an absolutely wonderful human being who was highly respected by his colleagues."

Lee had recruited Minkler to establish the Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy at UCSF in 1983. Minkler co-founded and co-directed the center, along with Claire Brindis, until his retirement in 1989.

"I continue to build on the wonderful legacy Don Minkler established," said Brindis, UCSF professor of pediatrics and health policy and current director of the center. "We bring the results of research in a format that can be used by policymakers who are making difficult decisions about where to allocate limited resources. We showed that one of the most cost-effective approaches in public health is making high quality family planning services available to both men and women."

Minkler fervently believed that providing all women, particularly those who are low-income and have limited resources, with access to high-quality, culturally appropriate reproductive services was akin to a basic human right, his friends and colleagues said.

"I remember that as a teenager (in the 1960s), my dad would take me up to Sacramento to hear him testify before state legislators about the need to ensure safe access to abortions," said Minkler's daughter, Bonnie Bollwinkel, a licensed clinical social worker.

In the 1980s, Minkler literally became the face of family planning when his image was used in full-page ads by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, where he was on the board of directors. The ads were created in response to attempts under the Reagan administration to limit access by teenagers to family planning services, and they appeared in national magazines, including Time.

"With the access to birth control pills, the concern over population explosion, and changes in sexual behavior that began in the 1960s, doctors became less paternalistic," said Dr. Malcolm Potts, UC Berkeley professor of maternal and child health and a former colleague of Minkler's in the field of international family planning. "Minkler appreciated the importance of this respect for women's reproductive autonomy, and he trained a whole cohort of students so they understood how this impacts the health not only of women, but also of their children."

Born Feb. 19, 1922, in San Francisco, Minkler grew up in the Bay Area. In 1940, he graduated from Lowell High School where he was a cheerleader and student body president. For his undergraduate studies, he attended UC Berkeley, where he became a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

In 1943, he headed off to Harvard Medical School for his medical degree, even though he was just a few credits shy of the requirements needed for a bachelor's degree at UC Berkeley. That technicality did nothing to deter his ability to earn an M.D. at Harvard in 1947.

During Minkler's studies at Harvard, which were funded by the G.I. Bill of Rights, he participated in the U.S. Army Specialized Training Program. After he completed an internship and residency at San Francisco's Franklin Hospital and the University of California Hospitals, respectively, he was stationed at a U.S. Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., from 1951 to 1953.

After Minkler's honorable discharge from the military in 1953, he set up a successful private obstetrics/gynecology practice with Dr. Carl Goetsch in Berkeley, Calif. The partners embraced innovation and were among the first doctors in the Bay Area to encourage the participation of fathers in the delivery room and the rooming in of newborn babies with their mothers in the hospital.

In 1968, Minkler decided to leave his private practice of 15 years to broaden his impact on women's health promotion. He returned to UC Berkeley on a fellowship and earned his master's degree in maternal and child health from the School of Public Health in 1969.

At UC Berkeley, Minkler developed a special interest in international women's health. After earning his master's degree, he spent a year in Uganda as a visiting professor at Makerere University. From 1971 to 1973, he served as a medical advisor to the USAID Office of Population in New Delhi, India. His dedication to international women's health issues eventually led to his work as a consultant in 26 countries.

"When he shifted from being a private doctor to his public health role, he helped shape a movement that went far beyond the patients he had in his practice," said Brindis.

He returned to the University of California to teach, holding joint appointments at UC Berkeley and UCSF. From 1973 to 1981, he was an associate professor in residence of obstetrics and gynecology at UCSF, and then he was promoted to full professor in residence in 1981. At UC Berkeley, he started off as a lecturer at the School of Public Health in 1975. In 1982, he was appointed professor in residence of social and administrative health sciences at UC Berkeley. He retired from the University of California and became a professor emeritus in 1989.

In 2001, Minkler was named Alumnus of the Year by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. That same year, he was honored at a day-long symposium and celebration of his wide-ranging achievements that was co-hosted by UCSF's Center for Reproductive Health Research and Policy, Institute for Health Policy Studies and Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

He also received honorary professorships in obstetrics and gynecology at Xian University and Norman Bethune Medical University, both in China.

Minkler held numerous appointments throughout his career, including maternal and child health consultant to the World Health Organization's Southeast Asia Regional Office in 1973, member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics from 1978 to 1986, president of the San Francisco Gynecological Society from 1980 to 1981, member of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America's Board of Directors International Committee in 1983, and chair of the Population and Family Planning Section of the American Public Health Association in 1987.

Minkler is survived by his wife of 61 years, Betsy Minkler, of Berkeley; a son, John Minkler of Fresno; three daughters, Bonnie Bollwinkel of Los Altos, Katie Minkler-Greene of Portland, Ore., and Jenny Hanson of San Ramon; five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, and a brother, Jason Minkler of Livermore.

At the family's request, donations in Minkler's honor may be sent to the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California & Northern Nevada, 2065 West El Camino Real, Suite C, Mountain View, CA 94040; or to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., 434 West 33rd St., New York, NY 10001.

A public celebration of Minkler's life is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. on July 22 at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club.