In Memoriam: Jesse L. Steinfeld, MD

January 6, 1927–August 5, 2014


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Jesse L. Steinfeld, MD

In 1971, then Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, MD, took Big Tobacco to task, stating, “Let me suggest that certain purveyors of cigarettes stop making remarks about how some young mothers in childbirth might welcome smaller babies. The mother who smokes is subjecting the unborn child to the adverse effects of tobacco, and as a result we are losing babies and possibly handicapping babies.”

Dr. Steinfeld earned his MD in 1949 from what is now called Case Western Reserve University. In 1954, Dr. Steinfeld took a position at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), serving as Director of the Radioisotope Laboratory until 1958. In 1959, he returned to California, where he joined the faculty of the University of Southern California School of Medicine, serving as Assistant Professor of Medicine, rising to Associate Professor in 1963 and full professorship in 1967. Dr. Steinfeld returned to the NCI in 1968, serving as Associate Director for Programs. Later that same year, he was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs, and on December 18, 1969, he became the U.S. Surgeon General. During his tenure as Surgeon General, Dr. Steinfeld also served as ASCO’s seventh President, from 1970 to 1971.

Dr. Steinfeld’s antitobacco stance was bold and unequivocal, leading him to become Big Tobacco’s worst enemy. Remarkably, his two predecessors had been smokers. Dr. Steinfeld removed all the ashtrays and placed no-smoking signs in his offices. Citing numerous studies showing that women were less likely than men to quit smoking, he spearheaded a campaign to reduce the number of female smokers. He also warned against the dangers of secondhand smoke. Many of his ideas about banning smoking on airplanes, trains, restaurants, the workplace, and other public places would take hold decades later, as antismoking activists lobbied for and achieved smoke-free zones. But at the time, they were considered radical.

Dr. Steinfeld resigned as Surgeon General in 1972. He then spent a year at the Mayo Clinic and 2 years at the University of California, Irvine. From 1976 to 1983, Dr. Steinfeld served as Dean at the Medical College of Virginia School of Medicine. He became President of the Medical College of Georgia in 1983. ■



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