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Laid the foundation for the field of biostatistics

Norman Breslow ’62

A giant in the field of biostatistics who pioneered new techniques to identify significance in medical studies, Norm Breslow died in Seattle at the age of 74. He “really did lay the foundation for all modern statistical methods in epidemiology and public health,” UCLA professor Ron Brookmeyer told the LA Times.

The work was extremely technical—using the right math in the right ways to get meaningful results from disease studies—but its implications were enormous. Was factory dust the cause of workers’ cancer, or was it because they smoked? Did Pap smears prevent cancer, or did the women who got tests just have healthier habits? In an era of huge data sets and rapidly expanding research into the causes and risk factors for disease, his techniques transformed the field.

Norm was the son of Lester Breslow, a renowned advocate for maintaining health by getting enough sleep, eating right, and avoiding tobacco. Following a more technical path, Norm continued his father’s work by clearing the way for advances in cancer research and other medical fields.

He grew up in the Bay Area, and as a youth loved hiking, trekking, and backcountry mountaineer skiing—activities he maintained throughout his life. He adored being in the mountains, and at the age of 16 climbed the Matterhorn in Europe. As an adult he was a member of the Seattle Mountaineers Club, the Sierra Club, and Club Alpin Francais. 

After graduating from Berkeley High School, he attended Reed, where he switched his major to math when he realized he might spend more time outdoors, studying math under a tree, than he would dissecting frogs in lab. He wrote his thesis, “On the Foundations of Number Theory,” with Prof. Joe Roberts [math 1952–2014], and subsequently earned his PhD in statistics at Stanford University.

As a young professor at the University of Washington, he was assigned a project on Wilms tumor, a kidney cancer affecting mostly young children. Studying the disease for the rest of his career, he dedicated himself to improving the treatment of this pediatric cancer and applied his discoveries to larger problems.

“He always thought in terms of the broader picture,” said his wife, Gayle Bramwell ’63, whom he married in 1963.

During his nearly 50-year career at the University of Washington as a scholar, mentor, and scientist, Norm helped build the modern field of biostatistics—the science of learning from biomedical data. Over five decades, he wrote some of the most cited papers in his field and also outside it. The Breslow estimator, a standard research tool, was named in his honor, said colleague Mitchell Gail, a senior investigator with the National Cancer Institute. His book Statistical Methods in Cancer Research, which he cowrote with Nicholas Day in the late 1970s, is considered a foundational text for medical research.

He defined the ideal biostatistician by living a deep commitment to advancing the field, nurturing the careers of trainees and colleagues around the world, and advancing science to improve public health.  From 1983 to 1993, Norman chaired UW’s department of biostatistics.

Martina Morris ’80, professor of sociology and statistics at UW, said, “Norm was not only a brilliant statistician, he was a remarkably demanding, but generous, mentor. I worked closely with a Kenyan scholar, Kawango Agot, who felt that Norm was the most influential and important teacher she had ever had. A force of nature, after obtaining both PhD and MPH degrees, she went back to her village, set up an NGO to work on HIV research, and is an internationally known scholar. Of all the faculty at UW, she found Norm, and he recognized and nurtured her abilities.”

He was also a member of the National Institute of Medicine, held a faculty position at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and taught several leading biostatisticians working in the world today. Hutchinson’s former director of public health sciences and current UW professor, Ross Prentice, said, “His work was characterized by well-chosen goals, persistence, rigor, and depth of engagement. His accessible and careful writing has enhanced biomedical research worldwide.”

Norman loved listening to folk and classical music. He documented his life in stunning photographs and was a dedicated Francophile, fluent in French and Spanish. He spent part of each year at his second home in the village of Pierrevert, France, and when he was back in Seattle, he watched the nightly French news. His adventures included solo roaming in rural Mexico, trekking in Nepal, winter camping in Canada, and productive professional stints in London, France, Germany, and Switzerland.

His many honors include the Spiegelman Gold Medal from the American Public Health Association, the Marvin Zelen Leadership Award in Statistical Science from Harvard University, the Snedecor and R.A. Fisher awards from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies, and the Medal of Honor from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Norm also shared the distinction of simultaneous membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science with his late father, Lester Breslow, himself a giant in public health.

Norm was once asked how he approached his research and responded that it began with the thought, “There must be a simpler way to do it.”

“He came along just when we got serious about dissecting out the causes of cancer,” said Jonathan Samet, chairman of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and director of the USC Institute for Global Health. “His knack was this translation thing. He said, ‘Here is the problem, and here is the tool to solve it.’”

Much of what is now known about causes and risk factors for cancer and other diseases was derived, in part, using Norm’s formulas.

He is survived by his wife, Gayle, daughters Lauren Basson and Sara Jo Breslow, grandchildren Benjamin and Ayelet Basson, brothers Jack and Stephen, nephew Paul, and stepmother, Devra Breslow.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2016

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