Renowned epidemiologist Steve Whitman, who for 10 years was deputy commissioner of the city Department of Public Heath under Mayor Richard M. Daley, had a vast impact in the nation’s public health field.
He was lauded for groundbreaking work on racial disparities in health care in Chicago and the U.S. — particularly his work on the racial gap in breast cancer mortality, and his epidemiological sleuthing that exposed the deaths of 733 mostly isolated, poor, elderly black Chicagoans in a deadly heat wave in 1995.
But more important than his professional achievements was his social justice work, family and friends say.
“Steve hated racism in all its forms, and thought it needed to be not only examined relentlessly, but most importantly, acted upon,” said his wife of over 30 years, Nancy Kurshan. “His desire to take care of people, to help them grow, and to believe in their potential, was at his core. This extended to people everywhere. He felt we should concentrate our energies on those children who were least fortunate.”
Mr. Whitman, of Humboldt Park, died Sunday at the Johnston R. Bowman Health Center of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. He had been in hospice care with cancer. He was 71.
Mr. Whitman was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 19, 1943, to Mildred and George Whitman. He attended City College of New York, and in 1968, earned a Ph.D. in biostatistics from Yale University. He taught at historically black Miles College and at Holy Family High School — both in Birmingham, Ala.
Later settling in Chicago, Mr. Whitman was a senior epidemiologist at the Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research at Northwestern University from 1978 to 1991. At NU, he authored a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine that was credited with helping outlaw the practice of emergency room patient-dumping in the U.S. Over the course of his career, he wrote more than 100 scholarly articles.
Mr. Whitman’s longtime friend and colleague, Dr. David Ansell, chief medical officer at Rush, described him as an “unrelenting, incisive critic of the social and economic conditions that have contributed to these large health disparities in our midst. But he was someone who did more than point out the gaps. He developed innovative programs that went into the community to intervene and reduce disparity. He was a giant in the field.”
In 1991, Mr. Whitman joined the city public health department, where he directed the epidemiology program until 2001. During one of the worst heat waves in U.S. history, it was his sleuthing that revealed the deaths of those 733 Chicagoans, almost two hundred more deaths than health authorities had been reporting.
His epidemiological methodologies were later copied in environmental disasters across the world and were the basis of the book “Heatwave,” by Eric Klinenberg.
“The Chicago Department of Public Health mourns the loss of a public health icon,” Commissioner Bechara Choucair said in a statement. “Dr. Whitman was passionate about public health. He worked tirelessly to reduce the toll of chronic conditions such as breast cancer, diabetes and asthma, especially in neighborhoods that suffer a disproportionate burden of disease and poor health.
“At his core, Dr. Whitman was not just an outstanding public health practitioner, he was an advocate for social justice,” Choucair said.
He left the public sector to be the founding director of Chicago’s Sinai Urban Health Institute at Mount Sinai Medical Center, which became a leading center for public health and health disparity research under his 14-year leadership, securing over $32 million dollars in grants and growing from a staff of three to 40.
Mr. Whitman led research teams on groundbreaking studies in the area of health disparities, focusing on environmental, political and social factors that shape health outcomes, colleagues said. His studies on pediatric asthma, HIV infection rates, epilepsy in cities, and other health issues were published in leading journals, and his research led to interventions and improvements in the delivery of services and quality of care in underserved communities, colleagues said.
“Steve had an unquenchable thirst to end social injustice,” said Karen Teitelbaum, president and CEO of Sinai Health System. “The Sinai communities have been beneficiaries of that drive because he improved quality of life for children with unmanaged asthma and adults at risk for diabetes or breast cancer. Both Steve’s science and mission will be continued well into the future.”
A community health survey Mr. Whitman and his team developed provided a transformative model nationally for gathering information on community health and well-being before crisis, colleagues said.
Mr. Whitman also helped found the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force that, with the support of the Avon Foundation, became a national model for community model for reducing racial disparities in breast cancer treatment and care. And in recent years, his statistical analyses of police misconduct has served as critical evidence in several high-profile police brutality lawsuits won by private citizens, colleagues and family said.
“Steve was an activist,” his wife said. “He fought with all his being to change the racist prison system, to end police brutality, and to eliminate disparities in health care. He believed, as Karl Marx said, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.’”
Mr. Whitman was described by his family as a “generous, humble, nurturing and playful” husband and father; “a man with an incisive intellect, a pocket filled with index cards and pens, and an ever more rigorous approach to his research.”
He enjoyed spending time in Union Pier, Mich., and Sanibel Island, Fla. He also enjoyed reading, especially J.D. Salinger and Toni Morrison, and watching sitcoms, his family said.
“Steve was a wonderful husband. He was a wonderful father, and by extension a wonderful mentor,” his wife added. “It was a perfect union. Life was a joy, and we never had a fight in 30 years.”
Besides his wife, survivors include two daughters, Imani Perry and Rosa Kurshan-Emmer; a son, Michael Kurshan-Emmer; two grandsons; and his sister, Hollis Farberman.
A celebration of life will be held at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, at Sacramento and Division streets. A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. July 31, in Glasser Auditorium of Mount Sinai, at California and 15th street.