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Dr. Leon Gordis, longtime chairman of epidemiology at Hopkins, dies

Dr. Leon Gordis, a popular public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, died.

Dr. Leon Gordis, who chaired the the Johns Hopkins University epidemiology department for nearly two decades and wrote one of the field's most widely used textbooks, died of a subdural hematoma Sept. 7 at Mount Sinai Roosevelt Hospital in New York. The Jerusalem resident was 81.

Dr. Gordis taught thousands of medical and public health students at Hopkins and in lectures around the world, and was voted one of Hopkins students' favorites on multiple occasions. He also gained fame in the 1990s for his work on a controversial expert panel for the National Institutes of Health, advising against routine mammograms for women under 50.

"Leon was a really impressive teacher," said Dr. David Celentano, current chairman of epidemiology at the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "He was just absolutely loved by generations of students."

Born in New York and raised in Far Rockaway, Queens, Dr. Gordis was the son of Robert Gordis, a prominent Conservative rabbi, author and biblical scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Fannie Gordis.

He came to Baltimore in the 1960s after receiving undergraduate degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and a medical degree at the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine.

He started at Hopkins in pediatrics, working as a fellow there and at Sinai Hospital while in the U.S. Public Health Service. He received a master's degree in public health in 1966 and a doctorate of public health in 1968 from what was then known as the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. He joined the Hopkins faculty in 1971 and served as epidemiology department chairman from 1975 until 1993, when he stepped down.

He was a longtime Pikesville resident.

He taught classes throughout his tenure, through his retirement in 2009. He and his wife, Hadassah Gordis, moved to Israel after that, but he returned to Baltimore to teach in a summer epidemiology program at Hopkins. He also taught classes in Israel.

Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School, credited Dr. Gordis with building bridges across departments and specialties within the Hopkins medical campus. In 2012, the university named in Dr. Gordis' honor a fellowship program in which doctoral students teach undergraduates about trends and topics in public health.

"He was a mentor to many people because he gave rational advice with humor and with caring," Klag said.

In 1996, W.B. Saunders and Co. published the first edition of a textbook Dr. Gordis wrote, simply called "Epidemiology." Dr. Celentano said the book is "probably used more than any other text in the world" in the field of epidemiology, which studies the causes, patterns and effects of diseases. The book's fifth edition was published last year.

Colleagues and family said as a teacher and in producing the textbook, Dr. Gordis was talented at explaining the fundamentals of epidemiology without oversimplifying the science behind them.

"The book is an attempt to communicate the basic ideas involved in epidemiology, and to show how exciting it can be," Dr. Gordis said in a YouTube video the book's current publisher, Elsevier, posted online last year. He added that the study of epidemiology "will help a physician be a better physician."

Dr. Gordis also was known for making his lectures entertaining, sprinkling in self-deprecating jokes or New Yorker cartoons. Bloomberg students at least twice awarded him a "Golden Apple," an award recognizing excellence in teaching.

"He had nine jokes for every example," Dr. Celentano said.

Gordis faced outrage from many in the health care industry in 1997 when, as chairman of an NIH expert panel, he and colleagues suggested that women in their 40s should not necessarily be subject to routine mammograms but instead weigh the tests' risks and benefits and decide for themselves. But he stood firm behind the panel's research.

"He didn't step away from controversy," Dr. Celentano said.

Dr. Gordis was also a talented oil painter and photographer, and in his younger days enjoyed cycling and hiking, said a son, Elie Gordis of New York.

Israel, the Jewish people and the Hebrew language also were among his "deepest interests," Elie Gordis said. Leon and Hadassah Gordis were members of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville before moving to Israel.

"He was an extraordinarily decent guy who treated everyone with profound respect," Elie Gordis said.

A funeral and burial were held Sept. 8 in Jerusalem.

In addition to his wife and son, Gordis is survived by two other sons, Daniel Gordis of Jerusalem and Jonathan Gordis of Vancouver, Canada; eight grandchildren; one great granddaughter, who was born three months ago and whom he was privileged to meet in New York City when she was visiting two weeks ago.

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