Zelen Remembered as Generous, Original Biostatistician (Annie Schugart)

Marvin Zelen may have been one of the world’s leading biostatisticians, but his friends and colleagues remember him as much for his generosity as for his brilliance.

Zelen, a professor in the Biostatistics Department at the School of Public Health, died on Nov. 15 from cancer. He was 87.

L. J. Wei, Zelen’s colleague in the Biostatistics Department, said it is important to “think about how we can learn from this great man.”

Zelen enjoyed a long and productive career in biostatistics research and once advised U.S. President Richard Nixon on cancer research. At the School of Public Health, Zelen served as chair of the Biostatistics Department from 1981 to 1990, and in 1997 the school created an award in his name. The American Cancer Society and American Statistical Association also honored him with prestigious awards during his career.

Although his colleagues and friends praised the accomplishments that propelled Zelen to the top of his field, in interviews this week they said that his character was what set him apart. To Biostatistics professor Xihong Lin, one word that describes Zelen is “generosity.”

“He was always a helpful person and imaginative person,” said Mitchell H. Gail, senior investigator in the biostatistics branch of the National Cancer Institute’s division of cancer epidemiology and genetics. “He was not afraid of controversy, and he really headed things off in the right direction.”

“Even though he was a busy guy, he always had time for other people,” Wei added.

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