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Dr. William G. Rothstein, longtime UMBC faculty member and expert in the history of medicine, dies

Dr. William G. Rothstein was a founding member of the department of sociology, anthropology and public health.
Dr. William G. Rothstein was a founding member of the department of sociology, anthropology and public health. (Handout / HANDOUT)

Dr. William G. Rothstein, a founding faculty member of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who spent his nearly five-decade career with the department of sociology, anthropology and public health, and was an author and expert in the history of medicine in the United States, died Dec. 5 at Madonna Heritage Assisted Living Home in Jarrettsville of complications from a stroke.

The longtime Pikesville resident was 83.

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“It’s so easy to talk about Bill Rothstein,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, who has been president of UMBC since 1992.

“He was one of the founding faculty members of UMBC, and came here when the doors opened in 1966, and was a man who had superb qualifications,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “From the beginning, he was involved with interdisciplinary matters, and made sure students were broadly educated. He built the departments of sociology, anthropology and public health, and was also an expert in the history of medicine in the U.S.

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“He was the consummate educator.”

William Gene Rothstein, son of Meyer Rothstein, owner of a scrap metal business, and his wife, Bertha Ann Rothstein, a homemaker, was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, where he graduated in 1955 from Crosby High School.

Professor Rothstein earned a bachelor’s degree in 1959 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in 1961, and his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1965 from Cornell University.

He worked from 1964 to 1966 as a research analyst for Prudential Financial Inc. in Newark, New Jersey, then left to join the UMBC faculty.

Professor Rothstein was promoted to associate professor in 1969 and to full professor in 1988. In addition to his classroom work, as director of the master’s program in applied sociology, he worked closely with students on a one-to-one basis helping them select courses, develop research interests and plan for careers.

“His support and encouragement of these students made him a beloved part of their UMBC experience,” according to a biographical profile submitted by his family.

Described as being a thoughtful and compassionate mentor, he remained connected to his students long after their graduation and avidly followed their careers. He shared dinners, lunches, trips to the symphony, emails and phone calls with them.

“His students are his legacy,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He taught them not only how to think, but how to laugh. People said he made them better, and that’s what he did for UMBC. He helped build UMBC into what it is today.”

Professor Rothstein’s research centered on the history of medicine from a sociological perspective, and through his four books published between 1972 to 2003 — “American Physicians in the 19th Century,” American Medical Schools and the Practice of Medicine,” “The Coronary Heart Disease Pandemic of the Twentieth Century,” and “Public Health and the Risk Factors: A History of an Uneven Medical Revolution” — traced the history of American medicine.

He researched disease rates in the U.S. and cross-nationally and the causes and consequences of medical policy and contemporary public health topics, and found favor with a wide audience that included physicians, sociologists and epidemiologists. Through the summer of 2020, Professor Rothstein was researching and beginning to write about COVID-19.

“He was fascinated by the role of UMBC alumni in developing a COVID vaccine,” Dr. Hrabowski said.

During his tenure at UMBC, he served on virtually every standing committee in the department and served as acting chair of the department.

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“He always asked good questions and believed in speaking truth to power, and told you what you needed to know,” Dr. Hrabowski said. “He believed in evidence and the last time I met him two weeks before he died, he was still asking questions and giving you the unvarnished truth if you wanted to hear it or not.”

Professor Rothstein retired in 2013 and was looking forward to having more time to conduct his own research, Dr. Hrabowski said.

“UMBC alumni have shared wonderful memories with us. Bill was a season ticket holder for men’s and women’s basketball, and was often cheering in the stands or eating pizza with graduate students while watching a game,” wrote Dr. Hrabowski and Dr. Philip J. Rous, UMBC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, in a joint statement announcing Professor Rothstein’s death.

“One former student shared gratitude that Bill was able to attend her wedding, and another remarked that what he learned from Bill continues to shape his teaching today,” the authors wrote.

“‘It’s a tough time, Freeman, but we’ll be OK,’” he told Dr. Hrabowski at the end of his life. “He always gave us hope. That’s who he was.”

Professor Rothstein was a member of Beth Am Synagogue.

A funeral service, held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, was held Thursday.

Professor Rothstein is survived by a sister, Barbara Levine of Charlotte, North Carolina; two nephews, Joshua Levine of Charlotte, and Michael Levine of Port St. Lucie, Florida; and several great-nieces and great-nephews.

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