The department mourns the loss of Dr. Naomi Breslau

November 14, 2018

Naomi Breslau


Former faculty member Naomi Breslau PhD died peacefully on Saturday, October 13, 2018 of complications of cancer of the uterus in the company of her loving husband, the former Dean of our College of Human Medicine, Glenn Davis; three sons and daughters-in-law; and six grandchildren. Colleagues mourn the loss of a friend and scholar of great accomplishment and wide recognition, and her family remembers a life shaped by her love of learning, passion for art and music, commitment to social justice, and a loving and generous spirit. We are grateful to her family members who provided some of the biographical details and notes that follow.

Naomi was born in 1932 in the British Mandate of Palestine. Her parents were labor Zionists who founded an agricultural Kvutzat avodah (work group) near Afula where she was born. She grew up largely in Hadera, a coastal town midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. She completed law school at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and, after a clerkship in the Israeli Supreme Court, emigrated to the US in 1956 to study Public Administration at NYU. But her interests soon turned to Sociology, and she completed her Ph.D. in that discipline at Case Western Reserve University.

She was married to the late psychiatrist Lawrence Breslau and took time off from her career to raise three sons - Jonathan, Daniel and Joshua. Jonathan practices neuroradiology, Daniel is a sociologist of science, and Joshua has followed his mother’s lead into the world of psychiatric epidemiology.

In our Department here at MSU, we had the benefit of Naomi’s collegiality, scholarship, wisdom, and friendship from 2003 until her formal retirement in 2016, but her first academic position was in the Department of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University. At that time, her research focused on the problems of children and families with chronic disease. After that, she went on to have a distinguished career as a psychiatric epidemiologist, with additional appointments at the University of Michigan and, for many years, at the Henry Ford Health Center in Detroit.

Naomi made important contributions to understanding the epidemiology of an unusually large number of health outcomes, including chronic disease in children, migraine, mental illness - especially post-traumatic stress disorder, and outcomes in low birthweight children. She also studied problems of sleep, the effects of smoking and addiction, and the determinants of IQ. Google scholar counts over 52,000 citations to her work, and she achieved the rare designation of “highly cited researcher”, meaning that she was in the top 1% of scholars in her field in having her work cited by others.

Everything she wrote was a model of careful thought and precise use of language. She was known among colleagues for her economical writing, her scientific toughness, and her generosity with her time and mentorship. To her children and grand-children she was encouraging, demanding, inquisitive, caring, and, most of all, inspiring.

She also inspired many in our field, especially young scientists, by her example of strength, intelligence, resilience and independence.

New York Times Obituary for Dr. Breslau


Below are comments from some of her colleagues and students:


Dr Naomi Breslau was a woman of integrity, a real truth-seeker, passionated about science, intelligent, rigorous in research methodology, brave, kind and generous. A wonderful human being. I am thankful and will always remember her fondly.

German F. Alvarado


Naomi was a great friend, generous with kind and thoughtful words as a gift when she sensed the need. Often, her gift came with a mood-warming anecdote, and sometimes with a wry and funny joke to match the occasion. Today, this is what I am missing the most. Upon reflection, I should add a few notes about Naomi and science. In epidemiology, Naomi brought a disciplined sociological perspective, always mindful of our field’s historical roots in its synthesis of Condorcet’s social justice, Chadwick’s reforms, and Snow’s sanitation science. She taught us Weber and Durkheim, and was pleased to learn of Sydenstricker’s value in Goldberger’s pellagra studies and his later initiatives in health care reform. Without her, few of our epidemiology students would have learned about the pragmatic value of what Merton called ‘theory of the middle range.’ Yet her sociology was not parochial and there was no confusion between sociology and socialism in her ideas. If there is a parochial sociology that continues to be pre-occupied with ‘social facts,’ then hers was a more cosmopolitan sociology with a reach that encompassed Wade Hampton Frost’s ideas about how individual behavioral choices can shape ‘exposure opportunities’ that help determine whether and when a PTSD-triggering traumatic life event is experienced or when a person has the first chance to smoke a tobacco cigarette. Of course, without these exposure opportunities for life events and without chances to try a drug compound like tobacco, there would be no PTSD or tobacco-caused diseases. She became one of the world’s few sociologists with the courage to study specific polymorphisms and genetic influences on risks of tobacco and nicotine dependence, and whether PTSD and other psychiatric disturbances might have shared genetic origins. At the same time, with respect to genetic hypotheses, she was never ‘true believer.’ Think ‘skeptic’ instead, and for evidence of skepticism, take a look at what she thought about the widely held belief that risk of depression might be boosted by an interaction when stressors are combined the S allele of the 5-HTTLPR serotonin transporter promoter region on Chromosome 17!po=1.04167 Some day in the future, when someone writes the history of sociology’s intersections with epidemiology, there will be a chapter on star sociologists who contributed to our understanding of human genetic epidemiology. Most likely, few will be named. She ranks as one of the stars.

Jim Anthony


Naomi had a profound impact on my life and I learned so much from her. She was a wonderful mentor and friend. We had so many wonderful conversations ranging from science to religion. I still tell her jokes!

Howard Chilcoat


It is hard to describe Naomi Breslau… She was extraordinary and unforgettable. I will remember her wisdom, thirst for knowledge, sharp humor, realistic perspective, curiosity for people, elegance, and love for her heritage. May her memory be a blessing.

Galit Dunietz


Naomi was a friend, colleague and sage-like listener when I sought her counsel. We talked about epidemiology, literature, psychology, politics and the nature of human relationships; she had knowledge and opinions on it all and was willing to share. I particularly valued her honesty, integrity and compassion. I will miss her ‘essence’ and will continue to reflect on what she might have said regarding controversial issues of our times. I hope the beloved memories of this most extraordinary woman give solace to family and friends; she will be missed by many.

Claudia Holzman


So many of Naomi’s deeply insightful comments have framed my scientific thinking and will remain seared into my memory. She was a force like no other and I’ll be forever grateful to her.

Jean Kerver 


Naomi was the best mentor one could ask for and dream of. I learned so much from her and I will miss her very, very much. I will always cherish to memory of her infectious smile, her generous spirit and her advice. I will always try to emulate her in research, but she will always be unique in my heart.

Zhehui Luo


Naomi had a penetrating intelligence that made every component of her research of the highest quality. She could spot a scientific flaw faster than anyone I knew, but at the same time, she was kind and encouraging to everyone. It was a joy to be her colleague and friend.

Nigel Paneth


Naomi was one-of-a-kind, in all of the best ways. She had a strong voice and probing intellect, and was an inspirational scientist and person. I will miss her dearly - especially her warm smile. Her legacy is one characterized by rigor, integrity, kindness, and generosity.

Nicole Talge


I am so sad to learn of Naomi’s death . My thoughts and affection go out to her husband Glen and her children, especially Josh who I have watched grow into an independent scientist. Naomi was an intellectual force, a true scientist, a brilliant thinker and a lovely woman. It was such a pleasure to share time with her when our lives would cross at meetings. We could share our work and also the things that we as women liked to talk about...I admired her and I warmed to learning that she was around at whatever event we found ourselves. Her presence was missed over the last few years as her illness diminished her ability to travel Now she will be permanently missed except for the memories we will see in the many students she trained, her writings and her family.

Myrna Weisman