Kaplan, former epidemiology professor, dies at 86

May 8, 2017

Dr. Bert Kaplan

Dr. Bert Kaplan

Berton Harris Kaplan, PhD, professor emeritus in epidemiology at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and loyal friend and supporter of the School, died Friday, May 5 at Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill. He was 86.

Born June 27, 1930, Kaplan grew up in Strasburg, a rural town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the child of Jewish immigrants who left Europe before World War II. As one of only two college-bound students in his high-school class of 50, he entered Virginia Tech, then a military academy, at the age of 16. At 21, he took his commission in the U.S. Air Force. An administrative mix-up placed him at Cape Canaveral rather than Korea, where six of his classmates perished.

After his military service, he came to UNC-Chapel Hill to study sociology and completed his doctorate in that field in 1962. During his program, however, he had worked and studied with John Cassel, MD, then chair of the UNC epidemiology department, and Kaplan became increasingly interested in epidemiology, mental health and other public health fields.

He joined the public health faculty in 1962 as an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health. In 1966, while Kaplan was a Social Science Research Council Fellow at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., Cassel offered him a faculty position in epidemiology. Kaplan accepted and remained on the epidemiology faculty until his retirement in 1999.

During the 1970s, Kaplan led a National Institutes of Health training grant on psychosocial factors in mental health and disease and published major books in social psychiatry and the first major review paper on social support and health. His extensive publications list spans many areas of social epidemiology.

“His research at the intersection of social science, medicine and humanities resulted in numerous publications, including authoring or editing three books,” his obituary reads, “but his greatest professional passion was teaching, for which he received the UNC School of Public Health’s McGavran Award for Excellence. His scholarship and teaching across departments and disciplines was recognized with the Faculty Service Award for Outstanding Service to the University. His legacy includes the many students and colleagues whose lives and careers he touched. Two of his former students have gone on to serve as university presidents.”

“Bert had a long-standing relationship with UNC and the department and was one of the early leaders in integrating social sciences into epidemiologic thinking and practice,” said Andrew Olshan, PhD, Barbara Sorenson Hulka Distinguished Professor in Cancer Epidemiology and chair of the Gillings School epidemiology department. “His erudite and cross-disciplinary perspective is sorely missed.”

Barbara K. Rimer, DrPH, dean and Alumni Distinguished Professor at the Gillings School, met Kaplan after he retired, during a time when he continued to be engaged in many activities of the School.

“Dr. Kaplan was one of the kindest, most caring and most erudite faculty members,” Rimer said, “and he cared deeply about the future of society, the School and higher education, more generally. He could summon passages from the Bible to discuss current events, and he was an advocate for interdisciplinary education. He was a big thinker who always made me want to go deeper into literature and ideas. In a world in which his kind of intellect is becoming ever scarcer, Dr. Kaplan’s passing is particularly sad. Our thoughts are with his family, especially his wife Ellen and their children.”

Kaplan leaves behind Ellen Brauer Kaplan, his wife of 58 years, and two sons, Daniel and Ron, and their families.

A funeral service will be held Tuesday, May 9 at 3 p.m. at Judea Reform Congregation, 1933 W. Cornwallis Road, in Durham, N.C. Memorial contributions may be made to Judea Reform Congregation, the Lerner Jewish Community Day School, or a charity of one’s choice.

Kaplan’s colleague, Victor Schoenbach, PhD, epidemiology professor at the Gillings School, has compiled information about Kaplan’s life here. The compilation includes a 2011 audio interview.


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Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu