Cancer researcher Sam Shapiro dies at 85; His studies promoted use of mammograms


Sam Shapiro, the retired Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health professor whose pioneering research demonstrated that mammograms can reduce women's mortality from breast cancer, died yesterday of cancer at his North Baltimore home. He was 85.

"He was a giant in the field of public health," said Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "He had a broad steel-trap mind that he used to teach his students how to think.

"He was a modest, deliberate-speaking man. You could always hear the answer to a question clicking in his head," Dr. Sommer said.

Born in New York City, Mr. Shapiro earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics from Brooklyn College in 1933. He later studied math and statistics at Columbia University and George Washington University.

In the 1960s, Mr. Shapiro was director of research at a health maintenance organization, the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York, when he became interested in the application of mammography for screening women and reducing mortality from breast cancer.

At the time, mammography was little used and its effect little known, and health maintenance organizations were not popular.

His study, conducted with Dr. Philip Strax, would ultimately change medical thinking about one of the most dreaded diseases.

By the 1970s, after he had published his widely heralded work, mammography had become commonly used to diagnose and treat breast cancer at the earliest possible stage.

As a researcher in the field of public health policy, he spent his career studying the effectiveness of medical treatments in large populations. Though trained as a mathematician, he became a nationally known biostatistician and epidemiologist.

He arrived at Johns Hopkins in March 1973 as director of the Health Services Research and Development Center in the School of Public Health and soon began attracting hundreds of students. He was regarded as one of the most popular professors at the East Baltimore campus.

Colleagues recalled "Professor Shapiro" -- he never earned a doctorate but was awarded an honorary one in 1998 by the Johns Hopkins University -- as having an open door to those who sought his knowing guidance and counsel.

He was remembered as a humble man who rarely raised his voice and let his decades of research speak for him. He employed a dry wit to lighten a heavy discussion.

"He was an enormously dedicated and caring teacher and mentor," said Dr. Pearl German, a Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health professor emeritus, gerontologist and friend for 26 years.

"He was one of the most concerned and rigorous researchers -- dedicated to both his colleagues in the field and the public," Dr. German said.

She described him as "an absolute believer in hard fact and scientific evidence rendered by research."

In 1988, Mr. Shapiro became the first nonphysician to receive the Charles E. Kettering-General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Prize, a top medical honor. The judges lauded his research that "almost unilaterally changed medical thinking about early detection" of breast cancer.

In 1992, he was named acting chairman of the Hopkins Department of Health Policy and Management. He retired last year but continued to work at his office until several months ago.

He wrote or co-wrote more than 200 scientific articles, among them a 1968 study of childhood mortality, a 1969 analysis of coronary heart disease and a 1985 article on low birth weight.

He was a member of many professional organizations and was elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1938, he married the former Selma Deitch.

Services have not been scheduled.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Dr. Robert Shapiro of Upton, Mass.; a daughter, Dr. Ellen Shapiro Fried of Chapel Hill, N.C.; two grandchildren and two great-grandsons.

Donations may be made to the Sam Shapiro Endowment in Health Services Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, 615 N. Wolfe St., W-1600, Baltimore 21205.

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