ROBERT S. DESOWITZ / 1926-2008
UH professor emeritus put passion into medical study
» More obituaries
Dr. Robert S. Desowitz, a University of Hawaii professor emeritus once described by a book reviewer as "a veritable Sherlock Holmes of parasites and pathogens," died March 24 in Pinehurst, N.C. He was 82.
He was an eminent teacher and researcher in the field of infectious diseases and public health and noted author of science books for nonscientists.
He was a professor from 1968-1995 in the School of Public Health and Department of Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology in the John A. Burns School of Medicine.
"He was extremely interesting to talk to," telling stories about the history of malaria and his studies in different countries, said Dr. Diane Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at UH when Desowitz was there. "He actually made malaria an exciting topic for graduate students."
Now a professor in the medical school and a malariologist like Desowitz, Taylor said she is giving an international presentation on malaria during pregnancy in June in Austria and plans to dedicate it to him.
"He made some of the most critical observations in the field that have withstood the test of time," she said. "His work is highly quoted."
He wrote "Ova and Parasites," an award-winning textbook on medical parasitology, and science books for the general public: "New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers" (1981), "The Thorn and the Starfish" (1987), "The Malaria Capers" (1991), "Who Gave Pinta to the Santa Maria" (1997) and "Federal Body Snatchers and the New Guinea Virus: Tales of Parasites, People and Politics" (2004).
His books and articles are entertaining but also thought-provoking, Taylor said. "He was a marvelous writer for nonscientists."
Students see the social implications of his work, she said. "They're thunderstruck with the passion with which he wrote, and they all want to go out there and do something."
Desowitz was born in New York and graduated from Niagara Falls High School. He served in the Army from 1944 to '46, receiving the American Campaign Medal for Good Conduct and a World War II Victory Medal.
He graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1948 with a bachelor's degree, then went to the University of London, where he earned a double doctorate in parasitology and medical biology in 1951 and a Doctor of Science degree in parisitology in 1961.
He was with the British Foreign Service from 1951 to 1960, chairman of medical parasitology at the University of Singapore School of Medicine from 1960 to 1965 and chief of the SEATO Laboratory's Department of Parisitology in Bangkok from 1965 to 1968.
While at UH he was appointed to a National Academy of Science commission studying effects of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam.
Dr. Kenton Kramer, associate professor in the UH Office of Medical Education/Tropical Medicine and Medical Microbiology, said Desowitz was an exceptional person who "was able to combine biological information with real-life experiences to create informative and entertaining lectures."
He said his favorite Desowitz's book is "New Guinea Tapeworms and Jewish Grandmothers," which "continues to be a useful reference on the interaction of humans and parasites."
"He was a great teacher and obviously had a great sense of humor," said state epidemiologist Paul Effler, a former student of Desowitz's. "He liked science and the politics of the science, in my assessment."
After retiring from UH, Desowitz became an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health.
He received many honors throughout his career.
Survivors include his wife of 39 years, Carrolee; daughter, Duba Desowitz Leibell; son Gregory; and four grandsons.
A memorial service was held yesterday in Pinehurst.