Zip, zip, Zippin along: Bnai Brith lodge gives award to brilliant UCSF scientist

Calvin Zippin has been to Israel and the Middle East 15 times. He traveled to the Soviet Union four times during the Cold War, stared down Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan and marched with mothers whose children “disappeared” in Argentina’s Dirty War between 1976 and 1983.

But he really sees himself as just an unassuming Jewish kid from New York.

“I was so lucky — a Jewish kid from Albany, N.Y.,” said Zippin, who has lived in Tiburon with his wife, Patricia, for more than 30 years. “I don’t understand how it all happened.”

While Zippin sounds modest, his work as a bio-statistician and epidemiologist is anything but.

Calvin Zippin

He has worked all over the globe, helping document everything from incidences of cancer in Israel and the West Bank to breast cancer rates in California. Also, he and his wife established a scholarship at his alma mater, the State University of New York–Albany, for Judaic studies students.

Zippin, who’ll turn 83 next month, has received several awards for his work, including the National Cancer Institute’s Lifetime Achievement and Leadership Award in 2004.

Yet another honor came his way recently when a local B’nai B’rith chapter, Greater San Francisco Lodge No. 21, named him its Person of the Year for 2008.

“He’s a brilliant person, very articulate, with wonderful attributes as a person,” said Irving Abramowitz, president of Lodge No. 21. “And he’s very humble about it.”

That’s for sure. Not long after the April 19 ceremonial dinner at a restaurant near Fisherman’s Wharf, Zippin joked that he won because “they just scrolled down the list alphabetically and finally came to my name.”

Zippin, currently professor emeritus of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, has been a B’nai B’rith member for 43 years. He served as president of two lodges in San Francisco and chairman of the Greater San Francisco Council of Lodges, and also is a former board member of the B’nai B’rith International Board of Governors.

Zippin was born in 1926 to immigrant parents who had come to America from Poland. He was named Kalman at birth, but shortly thereafter his name was changed to Calvin because “some of my more enlightened relatives felt it was more modern.” At the time, President Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House.

“But around the home I was always called Kalman,” Zippin said, adding that it is a name he treasures to this day. “I never met my first cousin, Kalman, who died in Auschwitz. But I want to keep that name alive.”

Zippin’s dream was to attend medical school, but since that was beyond his family’s financial means, he gladly settled on becoming a high school teacher (math, physics and biology) after graduating from SUNY-Albany in 1947.

He then worked at a New York research institute, where one of his first projects was to inject mice with an herbal laxative — and then let nature take its course.

“First I would have to watch the effects,” he said. “Then I would have to clean up the cages and measure what the mice had done. It was one of my great experiments.”

When a boss suggested Zippin pursue further studies, he entered Johns Hopkins School of Public Health on a full scholarship and went on to earn an Sc.D. (a doctor of science degree).

Two years later, in 1955, he joined the faculty at UCSF, where he has also worked in the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center and led the cancer registry.

Zippin’s identity as a Jew — he and his wife are members of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon — often led him to Israel, where he began working with Dr. Hoav Horn, at the time a research assistant at UCSF, about 30 years ago. Horn is an Israeli physician who started two medical clinics in the West Bank to treat Arabs with cancer and to train young Arab physicians.

Zippin helped publish six papers on the comparative cancer rates between residents of the West Bank and Israel. His findings — that the treatment was better in Israel due to superior access to medical care, which included earlier detection — helped Horn tailor his efforts in the West Bank over a 20-year period, which garnered him the World Health Organization’s prestigious Sasakawa Health Prize in 2000.

One of the biggest payoffs of the program was that patients were more likely to be treated earlier in the progression of the disease. “[Palestinians] really regarded [Horn] as a hero for this humanitarian work,” Zippin said.

Zippin was part of another successful endeavor when, in 1977, he went to the Soviet Union to meet with health officials in Leningrad to compare breast cancer data.

“I went to the Bay Area Council on Soviet Jewry before the trip and volunteered to bring Jewish materials, clothing and tape recorders to refuseniks,” Zippin recalled. “Then I arranged to spend Kol Nidre at a Russian synagogue with a Soviet Jewish doctor who hadn’t been to shul in 45 years.”

Zippin, who sprinkled Yiddish throughout the interview for this article, credits his Jewish background as being the primary reason he has worked so diligently in the field of public health for the betterment of diverse communities around the world.

“Judaism played a big role in my life,” Zippin said with gusto. “I went to cheder (religious school); my father, who contemplated going into the rabbinate, was president of our congregation.

“Devotion and commitment to the family, and the emphasis on education was clear from my Jewish upbringing,” he added. “I still reek of my Jewishness.”

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.