In May 1998, when Sam Shapiro was presented with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Johns Hopkins, the university he had served for 26 years, the wording inscribed on the document said simply: For changing the face of American health care in this half-century.
It proved an apt epitaph for a man whose demeanor belied his accomplishments.
"He was a modest, deliberate-speaking man," Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Public Health, told The Sun after Shapiro died Dec. 30 from cancer at the age of 85. "He was a giant in the field of public health."
Professor emeritus of health policy and management in the School of Public Health, Shapiro began studying infant mortality in the 1940s, a time when there was no field of research that investigated the relationship between health care systems and patient outcomes.
The research methodologies he developed, which came to fruition in his landmark work on mammography for screening women for breast cancer, became the foundation for an entire research discipline. American health policy-makers and the health care industry came to rely on the research he pioneered. Countless women have survived breast cancer because of the recommendations of his work.
Shapiro attended Brooklyn College, earning a bachelor of science degree in 1933. At Columbia and George Washington universities, he studied math and statistics but later became nationally known as a biostatistician and epidemiologist. In 1988, he became the first nonphysician to be awarded the prestigious Charles E. Kettering-General Motors Cancer Research Foundation Prize.
Known as one of East Baltimore's most popular professors, Shapiro had joined Hopkins in March 1973 as director of the Health Services Research and Development Center in the School of Public Health. It was only last year that he decided to retire. Until then, he continued to conduct an astonishing range of research, which continually revealed new ways to organize services so that those who need care can receive it.
Donations in his memory may be made to the Sam Shapiro Endowment in Health Services Research at the School of Public Health.