Remembering Jennifer Kelsey, in our own words

Jennifer Kelsey, PhD, MPH (1942-2021), Professor Emerita of Epidemiology & Population Health, Stanford School of Medicine

From Professor Emerita Alice Whittemore: 

It is with great sadness that I learned that Jennifer L. Kelsey died recently.

She has been recognized for her work in the epidemiology of women’s cancers, in diseases of the musculoskeletal system and of falls in older adults. She is the author of a textbook, Methods in Observational Epidemiology, and I had the pleasure of contributing to later revisions of this book. I remember her as a teacher, mentor, counselor, and friend who inspired me and brightened my life.

Jenny received her MPH from Yale in 1966 and her PhD in epidemiology from Yale in 1969. After receiving her doctorate, she stayed at Yale as a faculty member for 14 years, leaving in 1983 to serve as head of the Division of Epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. In 1991, she joined the faculty at Stanford University as chief of the Division of Epidemiology in the medical school. She was also a member of advisory committees and study sections for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, I first met Jenny when we both served on an NIH panel in Bethesda MD to review grant proposals in cancer epidemiology. At the time, she was living in Connecticut and I was living in New York, and when she offered me a ride home from Bethesda, I accepted with pleasure, and I got to know her and to enjoy her humor and her unique insights.

Jenny has received extensive honors for her epidemiological work. In 2000, she received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Yale Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. She also received the Wilbur Cross Medal from Yale in 1995 and the American Public Health Association's John Snow Award in Epidemiology in 1991. She was an honorary fellow of the American College of Epidemiology.

I will miss her.


From Professor Lori Nelson: 

I was truly devastated to hear that Jenny had passed away, as she is a longstanding friend and colleague. I was recruited to Stanford by Jenny, who was Chief of the Division of Epidemiology at the time. Together we founded the epidemiology master’s and doctoral programs. She was such a character and was a trailblazer in the field of epidemiology, having made major contributions while on the faculty at Yale, Columbia and Stanford.  She contributed in so many realms of epidemiology, including musculoskeletal disease, cancer, and research methodology, and wrote a major text in the field, Methods in Observational Epidemiology. This is a tremendous loss to the world of epidemiology and to our program at Stanford. Memories of Jenny will remain close to our hearts and she will be greatly missed. 


From Professor Julie Parsonnet: 

Jenny was a neighbor of mine the entire time she was at Stanford both in the office and on Kings Mountain. She was a talented epidemiologist who built the epidemiology division from next to nothing, recruiting great faculty and creating the PhD program. We owe the existence of the department to her vision. I remember her most, though, as a friend and fellow dog owner. We took many walks together with our animals in the redwoods above campus. She had an extraordinary sense of humor and wonderful, rich laugh. My most vivid memory is “helping” deliver a litter of one of her beloved golden retrievers at her home off of Skyline Blvd. Of course, the dog needed no help, but I was glad to answer the call and watch the puppies enter the world. 

Jenny’s retirement left a big hole in the department and in the Kings Mountain community. After she retired, I looked forward to her annual Christmas cards filled with pictures marking her year’s travels with her canine companions, and was lucky to enjoy seeing her in person on her visits to the Bay Area. She leaves a wonderful epidemiologic legacy as well as deep, abiding friendships.


From Professor Kristin Sainani: 

Jennifer Kelsey was a pioneer in epidemiology and helped establish Stanford’s educational programs in epidemiology. She was also my first professor in epidemiology and introduced me to the field. I still have her textbook Methods in Observational Epidemiology (co-authored with Alice Whittemore) on my bookshelf. It was a pleasure to later co-author papers with her because she was a fellow stickler for clear, concise, and transparent writing. I’ll always remember how she ran the stadium stairs in the Stanford football stadium on her lunch hour every day, except when she had a grant due! I’ll also remember the litters of golden retriever puppies in her office at HRP—they brightened the building and added to the place’s character. She loved animals. She always had her dogs nearby and was an advocate for animal welfare. She will be missed.  


From E&PH Affiliate, Jacqueline Itnyre: 

Jennifer was a warm and generous person with a good sense of humor. She enjoyed an occasional afternoon tea at a restaurant in Menlo Park where the requirement for “High Tea” was a group of 5 or more. She especially liked the Shepard’s pie that was only served with high tea. So she would let me know that it was time for another afternoon tea and we would come up with an appropriate list of invitees. Sometimes at tea she would provide us with a demonstration of the appropriate way to partake of the afternoon tea ritual. It was very amusing.

Besides her dedication to being a preeminent epidemiologist, she had an abiding interest in caring for her dogs. She was an active advocate of humane treatment for dogs and participated in dog rescue programs.

If I am not mistaken, I believe that it was Jennifer Kelsey who was due to give a presentation to the Division of Epidemiology at the time of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake at 5:04 pm. She had flown to California for the event. The presentation scheduled for 5 pm and several people were gathered waiting for her to show up when the building began to shake. She was undaunted by the event and chose to come to Stanford as Chief of the Division of Epidemiology in 1991.