Spyros Andreopoulos, former head of Stanford Medicine’s news and public affairs office, dies at 86

Spyros Andreopoulos advocated for transparency during his 30 years as director of Stanford Medicine’s news and public affairs office. He died Nov. 20.

- By Rosanne Spector

Spyros Andreopoulos, who served as director of Stanford Medicine’s news and public affairs office for 30 years, was known as a champion of openness in university communications.

Spyros Andreopoulos, the director of Stanford Medicine’s news and public affairs office for 30 years and a writer dedicated to educating the public about health care and biomedical research, died Nov. 20 at a nursing home in Menlo Park, California. He was 86.

Andreopoulos was known as a champion of openness in university communications. His advocacy of truthfulness and transparency in the School of Medicine’s activities led some, including the dean at the time of his retirement, to call him “the conscience of the medical school.” And while the school’s leaders did not always heed Andreopoulos’ characteristically blunt recommendations, many eventually came to see the wisdom of his advice.

Born in Athens, Greece, on Feb. 12, 1929, Andreopoulos learned English in German-occupied Salonica as a teenager, served as a communications liaison in Greece’s air force during the Korean War, and studied journalism in the United States, where he married and remained. He worked in public relations and journalism, earning recognition among reporters and public-relations specialists as an unusually well-informed, honest and sometimes bold broker of medical news.

“In my experience, Spyros was one of the most competent, most helpful and most completely honest people in the public information world that I’ve encountered or dealt with,” said longtime San Francisco Chronicle science reporter David Perlman in a 2009 interview. “You could always count on him to give you a straight answer and be totally forthcoming on matters of medical center policy. He was one of the very best in the business.”

Though he was not a member of Stanford’s faculty, Andreopoulos commanded the respect and attention of leaders in medicine at Stanford and beyond.

‘Tell the story honestly’

“Over the years I was at Stanford, we had lots of episodes that weren’t very pleasant,” said David Korn, MD, a professor at Harvard University who was dean of Stanford’s medical school from 1984-95, in a May 2010 interview. “Spyros would always say, ‘We have to get that story out.’” 

“Spyros believed very firmly that you can’t hide things, and you shouldn’t hide things, and if something happens at the university that is regrettable it’s always best for the university to get out there first, tell the story honestly and put its spin on it — rather than let it trickle out and leave it to the media to report it in a way that’s incomplete and, more than that, with the spin that the media chooses to put on it,” Korn said.

Spyros believed very firmly that you can’t hide things, and you shouldn’t hide things.

Andreopoulos served as spokesman for the medical school and Stanford Hospital, director of the medical center’s news office and adviser to the organizations’ leaders. He also was a prolific and insightful writer himself.

“I have been brought up short more than once by things you’ve written that I thought put a new ethical stance to something that I had felt I understood but turned out I didn’t understand very well,” said biology professor Donald Kennedy, PhD, in 1993, at Andreopoulos’ retirement party at the Stanford Faculty Club. Kennedy was Stanford’s president from 1980-92. “I remember particularly the article, called ‘[Gene] Cloning by Press Conference,’ in which the whole issue of academic conflict of interest with other kinds of obligations in science first became clear to me, and I think to many other people,” said Kennedy. The article, by Andreopoulos, was published in 1980 in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“Then, of course,” continued Kennedy, “there is the passion that you bring occasionally to issues of public policy, and passion that has caused some of your colleagues to refer to you in the friendliest of ways as Mount Andreopoulos.”

Among the issues Andreopoulos took up over the years: the dangers of conflicts of interest in medical research, the strengths of single-payer health coverage, and methods for avoiding hype in reporting biomedical research. 

Questioning authority

Andreopoulos played the diplomat, but only up to a point. He knew his opinions ruffled feathers, but that didn’t stop him from pushing for what he thought was right. Though he looked the sober gentleman — unfailingly polite and, even in his college days, dressing in a neat jacket and tie and a dapper, flat cap — deep down he was a fighter.

“I respect authority,” said Andreopoulos in an interview in 2010. “But I don’t believe that authority cannot be questioned.”

Considering his background, that’s no surprise. His father, George Andreopoulos, carried out World War II resistance operations in Greece under the eye of the occupying German soldiers, moving Jewish families out of harm’s way. For two years during the war, the Andreopoulos family took in a Jewish woman and her daughter under the pretense they were cousins.

During the war, which came to Greece in 1940, Andreopoulos went to high school and took English lessons. Among his classmates were several German officers, who had been encouraged to learn English before joining Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

You could always count on him to give you a straight answer.

Greece was liberated by Britain in 1944, and in 1948-49, Andreopoulos studied at the University of Athens, “where I majored in chemical engineering that my father wanted but I did not,” he said. His studies were cut off when the Royal Hellenic Air Force drafted him for two years of service in Korea, a blessing in disguise, he said.

Andreopoulos got his first experiences as a diplomat as the spokesman for a squadron of seven Douglas C-47 transport planes contributed by Greece to the U.S. effort in Korea. Because C-47s have a short range, they had many stops along the way to the base in Japan: in Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and the Philippines. Andreopoulos flew in the plane leading the formation. “In each of these countries, some of which had governments that did not approve of the war in Korea, I did the diplomatic work,” he said. While serving, he also had his first journalism experiences, recording interviews with the troops for Radio Athens.

Mixing military, English skills

Though he was trained in flight control, his knowledge of English led to his first job in communications. “Because I was one of the few English-speaking Greeks, my job in Korea and Japan was that of a liaison,” he said. “Our squadron was integrated with the U.S. Air Force’s 21st Troop Carrier Squadron and operated as one unit. Because we changed bases often, we became known as the ‘Kyushu Gypsies.’ My job was to keep communications between the Gypsies smooth.” Kyushu is one of the islands of Japan.

After the war, Andreopoulos returned to Greece and worked for the United States Information Agency, helping produce a series of films on the accomplishments of the Marshall Plan in Greece. In 1953, he went to Kansas State University to learn about agriculture to prepare for writing the scripts for a film series teaching Greek farmers to use modern methods. The project was canceled the next year, but Andreopoulos was able to stay in the United States and enrolled in Wichita University, now Wichita State University, to study journalism with the help of a $2,000 scholarship, plus free room and board. “This was a lot of money in 1954,” he said.

In 1955, while still a student in Wichita, he joined the Wichita Beacon newspaper as a reporter covering the education and science beats, and two years later he became assistant editorial page editor.

In 1959, the famous psychiatrist Karl Menninger, MD, asked Andreopoulos to join The Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, as assistant director of information services and editor of The Menninger Quarterly. He worked at the psychiatric clinic and school until a 1963 offer from Stanford lured him away. But not before he absorbed some of Menninger’s teachings.

“Karl Menninger believed that administrators should not only administer but should write the experience for the benefit of others,” said Andreopoulos. “Therefore he required us to write papers and publish papers on things we had done.

Once at Stanford, Andreopoulos had plenty of administrative matters to write about — and plenty of news to get out. He wrote about tensions between the medical center and the city of Palo Alto, the creation of a virus in a test-tube, the first successful heart transplant in the United States and the Asilomar Conference on the safety of research using bioengineered materials. The attitude of the university’s administration in those years suited him perfectly. “We had a carte blanche from Lyle Nelson, who was the director of public affairs at that time, to act almost independently, like a news organization and to cover the university fully, factually and to not worry about whether something we reported was negative,” he recalled.

“The thinking was that in the long run, most of the news would be very positive. Occasionally there will be a negative story but by virtue of the fact that we were volunteering it ourselves and covering it ourselves, we diminished the possibility of it becoming a big scandal.”

As director of Stanford’s medical news office, Andreopoulos served as the official spokesman for the school and hospital, and also as editor of Stanford M.D. magazine and its successor, Stanford Medicine, which he founded. He became director emeritus in 1993. 

Prolific pen

Other noteworthy Andreopoulos writings include the book Aging of America & the Role of the Academic Health Center (1988) and the article “The Unhealthy Alliance Between Academia and Corporate America” (2001) concerning the distorting influences of the commercialization of academic science on university research. He co-authored a medical novel, Heart Beat, (1978). Primary Care: Where Medicine Fails, which he edited, received the Best Book Award from the American Medical Writers Association in 1975, and National Health Insurance: Can We Learn from Canada?, which he edited, was named Book of the Year by the American Nurses Association in 1976.

He also edited and contributed to a book series on socioeconomic aspects of health care: Medical Cure and Medical Care (1972); Primary Care: Where Medicine Fails (1974); National Health Insurance: Can We Learn from Canada? (1975); and with John Hogness, MD, Health Care for an Aging Society (1990).

As a member of the board of the Sun Valley Forum on National Health, a think tank co-founded in 1972 by the late Averill Harriman and based in Sun Valley, Idaho, Andreopoulos authored and published policy papers on a range of topics.

I stand by those words 100 percent.

Beginning in 1995, he contributed more than 60 commentaries to the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and other newspapers on topics ranging from medical education and research to drug company advertising, health-care policy issues and the uninsured.

He received several exceptional achievement awards from the Association of American Medical Colleges for “excellence in medical education public affairs,” and on the year of his retirement, Stanford Medicine magazine received the Sibley Award for excellence from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, the highest honor accorded to university magazines.

Andreopoulos served on the boards of the California Division of the American Cancer Society and the National Association of Science Writers. He was a member of the American Medical Writers Association and served as a consultant on public relations and communication to the National Cancer Institute, several academic medical centers, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, the Markey Charitable Trust and the Lucile and David Packard Foundation. In the early 1970s, he advised PBS and the National Science Foundation during the initial planning and launching of the NOVA television series.

When Andreopoulos retired from the medical school in 1993, Korn, who was the dean at the time, had a commemorative scroll prepared for him. It is now framed in the Stanford campus house where Andreopoulos lived for decades, and where his wife, Christiane, still resides. It reads:  “A respected and loyal friend of Stanford, a man of the highest principles, you served as the conscience of the Medical Center, working with uncommon skill and probity to translate and disseminate scientific research, striving always to discern and communicate the truth. We salute your long and distinguished career.”

Said Korn, nearly 20 years later: “I stand by those words 100 percent.”

In addition to Christiane, who for many years taught French at Castilleja School, an all-girls middle and high school in Palo Alto, California, Andreopoulos is survived by a sister, Rena Michalopoulos, of Athens, Greece; daughter Sophie Fitch of San Carlos, California; and granddaughters Kelly Anne and Alison Fitch.

Memorial donations can be made to the Guttmacher Institute by calling 800-355-0244 ext. 2237 or by visiting http://www.guttmacher.org.  

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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