Apr. 27 2022

Memorial Event Celebrates the Life of Zena Stein

Colleagues, friends, and family gathered to celebrate the remarkable life of the late Zena Stein on April 22. Stein died in November at the age of 99. (Watch video of the event below.)

Stein and her husband and collaborator Mervyn Susser joined the Public Health faculty in 1966 after earlier work in South Africa and England. She made numerous important contributions to public health in the areas of mental health, reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, the social determinants of health, and more. She integrated social justice into every aspect of her work.

Stein was Associate Dean of Research and Interim Chief of the Division of Epidemiology (in the early 1990s) at Columbia Mailman; a founding member of the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center; a co-founder of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies and director of the Epidemiology of Brain Disorders Unit at New York State Psychiatric Institute. She established the Columbia University-Southern African Fogarty AIDS International Research and Training Program, which trained more than 600 Southern African scientists at Columbia.

Organized by the Department of Epidemiology and held at Alumni Auditorium, the memorial event titled “Visionary Woman in Science: Remembering and Celebrating the Life of Zena A. Stein” was part of a series of lectures established to remember another late faculty member and colleague of Stein’s: Alan Berkman. Berkman was vice chair of the Department of Epidemiology in the 2000s, and was recruited by then Department Chair Ezra Susser, who is also Zena’s son. Berkmann conducted research and was engaged in advocacy work that was instrumental in making global access to HIV care and treatment, that include antiretroviral drugs, a reality in sub-Saharan Africa. Epidemiology Professor Barun Mathema emceed the event.  

Presenters at the April 22 event remembered Stein for her brilliant mind, boundless energy, friendship and mentorship, and deep commitment to social justice. The following are a few select excerpts from those remarks:

Barbara Zeller, Senior Medical Advisor, Sunriver Health, Widow of Alan Berkman:

“Zena and Mervyn hosted these afternoon salons up in Hastings. They were so memorable; we met folks from all over the world. The discussions ranged from politics to medicine to epidemiology to ethics and public health. … Scientific rigor, ongoing compassion, a vision for a better world and an unyielding demand that we all continue to fight for it. That was Zena.”

Louise Kuhn, Professor of Epidemiology, Columbia Mailman:

“The weight of the brilliance of Zena’s ideas opened doors for me to collaborate with compassionate but scientifically rigorous pediatricians in New York City on the frontline of caring for families affected by HIV. … Zena dived fearlessly into [the issue of breastfeeding and HIV transmission] and I learned from her courage and insights and joined her.”

Erica L. Gollub, Professor, Health Science Program, College of Health Professions, Pace University:

“She took me on as a mentee and in the week following heard her refer to me as her ‘best friend.’ I was so honored and humbled, [as I was a] postdoc she had just met. In the ensuing weeks, I realized that Zena had scores of best friends, even hundreds. … I had entered into Zena’s world where she had a large and wide embrace for so many.”

Salim Abdool Karim, Professor of Epidemiology, Columbia Mailman; director of the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa:

“She epitomized the strength of social networks. She epitomized the way in which people can be brought together. She wanted you to be linked up to be networked with each other. … She was the consummate intellectual, scientist, activist. She never saw them as separate. Her quest to make the world a better place was integrally linked with her quest to be a great scientist.”

Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Professor of Epidemiology, Columbia Mailman; Associate Scientific Director of CAPRISA, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa:

“Zena was way ahead of her time. She had the insight way back in 1992 … to establish the Columbia University-Southern African Fogarty AIDS Training Program … [It] changed a whole region in its response to HIV and TB.  If we look in other parts of the world, we can see the story repeated. … Setting up the HIV Center changed the response in New York.”

Ezra Susser, Professor of Epidemiology and Psychiatry, Columbia Mailman and New York State Psychiatric Insititute, son of Zena Stein and Mervyn Susser:

“She was lifetime friends with literally hundreds of people. … There were always refugees and exiles staying in our house, children of her friends and friends of her children. … There was always a place at the table for anyone who wanted to be there. … [Zena and Mervyn] always had a place for people with nowhere else to go.”

Ida Susser, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Hunter College and Graduate Center City University of New York (CUNY) and daughter of Zena Stein and Mervyn Susser:

“We were really brought up by politics. We couldn’t avoid it. … When I was eight, I was organizing around Chartwell [South Africa] in my elementary school.  … When we were in Manchester, we would march down the streets in the rain, like twenty people with signs about anti-Apartheid. It was always in the rain.”

Ruth King, daughter of Zena Stein and Mervyn Susser:

“[In later years] she had more time for memories and poetry and reflection. …  She felt she was weakening and death coming. Ida arranged a phone call with the rabbi who did a small ceremony after my dad died. … He said what should I say about you [for a funeral]?… After she died [I came across a paper]… She had indeed worked on it. This is what she’d come up with…

As a Jew, mindful of ghetto, shtetl, persecution, death camps,
I have tried to live as a righteous person. Righteous is all embracing.
A person who tried in all dimensions and ways of life, whether in
thinking, acting, or speaking, to be honest, decent, good, just, and
loving, fits the title of ‘righteous’ — all embracing.


Acknowledging what was given to me — wealth, privilege,
my own forefathers, parents, brothers, dead beloved husband Mervyn,
Ida, Ezra, Ruth, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.


“Righteous” is all-embracing — someone in past, present and future
And with faith in those who follow — Righteousness is universal,
all embracing.

Zena Stein, 2021

Watch the video: