Jennifer Kelsey, former head of Stanford epidemiology, dies at 79

Kelsey was known for her teaching skills, her expertise in musculoskeletal disorders and her love of golden retrievers.

- By Genevieve Bookwalter

Jennifer Kelsey used to bring her golden retrievers into her New York office.
Ned Polan

Jennifer Kelsey, PhD, the former head of the Division of Epidemiology at Stanford Medicine, died Oct. 13 in Connecticut from complications following a stroke. She was 79.

Kelsey was known for her detailed epidemiological methodology, which helped set her students up for success in a variety of epidemiological specialties. Her research focused on the incidence and causes of musculoskeletal disorders — diseases within the joints, bones, spine, muscles and connective tissues — as well as falls in older adults.

Kelsey authored the textbook Methods in Observational Epidemiology, which she taught in her Stanford classes. She also wrote Epidemiology of Musculoskeletal Disorders.

Friends, colleagues and former students remembered her as a tough and inspiring leader.

“My training with her has been a huge key to my success,” said Theresa Keegan, PhD, professor of medicine at the UC-Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Kelsey was Keegan’s adviser as she pursued her PhD in epidemiology at Stanford.

“A huge influence was how strong she was methodologically, and she prepared her students so well in that regard,” Keegan said.

Sten Vermund, MD, PhD, recalled working with Kelsey when he was an assistant epidemiology professor at Columbia University and she ran the department. Vermund said he learned a lot sharing an office with Kelsey, decades ago.

“Her skill set for mentoring and collaborating was extraordinary,” he said. “She never forgot a kindness done to her, and she, of course, provided kindnesses to many.”

Kelsey had a passion for breeding golden retrievers, and her dogs were a regular presence in the office they shared, on the 30th floor of an apartment building in New York.

“None of us minded having the dogs there and the students got a kick out of it,” said Vermund, who is now dean of the Yale School of Public Health as well as a professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine.

I always said if I could return as a dog, I would want to be one of hers.

Martha Kessler, director of finance and administration for Stanford Medicine, said after Kelsey retired and returned to Connecticut, the epidemiologist would load up her three golden retrievers and drive across the country to visit the Bay Area for six weeks each summer.

Most of Kelsey’s retrievers became therapy or crisis comfort dogs, Kessler said. Many of them went on to earn American Kennel Club obedience and therapy dog titles.

“I always said if I could return as a dog, I would want to be one of hers,” Kessler said.

Kelsey graduated from Montclair High School in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1960. She earned her bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from Smith College in 1964, graduating cum laude.

She received her master’s of public health in 1966 and her PhD in epidemiology in 1969, both from Yale University. She taught epidemiology at Yale for 14 years, then moved to the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, where she was head of the Division of Epidemiology from 1983-1991. She joined Stanford’s faculty in 1991, when she was hired as chief of the Division of Epidemiology at Stanford Medicine. She retired in 2003, moving to Connecticut.

Kelsey also served as a member of advisory committees and study sections for the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Kelsey had planned to return to the Bay Area full time, friends said, but the COVID-19 pandemic and recent wildfires kept her from making the move.

“She loved Stanford. She was very happy in California,” Vermund said. “Her intention was to live her last years in California.”

 Kelsey received many honors for her epidemiological work. Those include the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Yale Department of Epidemiology and Public Health in 2000, 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.

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