Dr. Robert M. Worth /
physician and humanitarian

Isle doctor helped in lifting
Hansen's disease quarantine

See also: Obituaries

By Mary Adamski

Dr. Robert M. Worth's first job as a physician was at Kalaupapa, and it led to a reputation as internationally known expert on leprosy.

It was as a scientist and humanitarian friend to his former patients that Worth pursued research in Hong Kong, Micronesia and New Guinea. His work played a critical role in getting the century-long quarantine in Hawaii lifted in 1969, allowing Hansen's disease patients to be treated on an outpatient basis.

"When I became chief of the Communicable Disease Division, he sat down and gave the orientation, the whole story of Hansen's disease," said Dr. Mona Bomgaars, a Department of Health physician and former head of the Hansen's disease branch. "He was very active in trying to get the quarantine lifted."

Worth, 78, who retired in 1985 after 22 years on the faculty of the University of Hawaii schools of Medicine and Public Health, died Thursday in Honolulu. He served as chief of the state Department of Health Communicable Disease Division from 1988-1992.

"He was a pioneer in the public health field in Hawaii," said Dr. David Curb, principal investigator with the Honolulu Heart Program. The internationally known study has tracked the health and lifestyles of 8,006 men of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii, comparing with men in Japan and the mainland, the largest epidemiologic study of a minority population in America.

"He was one of the people who developed the ideas and mechanisms for making it happen. At the time, most people didn't have the vision to see where it would go," said Curb.

Both Curb and Bomgaars, on the UH faculty with Worth, applauded his role as a teacher. "He was instrumental in a lot of people's careers," said Curb. "He was a very honorable person who had students at heart," said Bomgaars.

Worth was born in China, the child of a Presbyterian missionary family, and left as a teenager, only to return as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He earned degrees from the University of California-San Francisco and Harvard University School of Public Heath, and a doctorate in epidemiology from the University of California-Berkeley.

Worth was chief scientist for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's Agent Orange projects, supervising studies to detect connections between the herbicide and health problems of Vietnam War veterans. He served for years as a World Health Organization adviser on leprosy.

Bomgaars said one particular research project should be remembered. "He and Dr. N.K. Shaw published the first epidemiology study of population of Nepal in about 1965. I used that book to help me understand Nepal," said Bomgaars, who worked there as a medical missionary with the Presbyterian Church for 15 years. "It is still a remarkable study."

He and his wife, Annie Liu Worth, were married for 52 years. The survivors also include sons Brian M. and Jonathan L., sister Anna B., stepmother Hilda B. and stepsisters Lucy C. and Julia Worth Holley.

A Quaker memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. March 1 at the Honolulu Friends Meeting House, 2426 Oahu Ave.

The family suggests that in lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Robert M. Worth Epidemiology Scholarship Fund, University of Hawaii Foundation, 1960 East-West Road, BioMed T-101, Honolulu 96822.

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