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Leona R. Shapiro

20 March 2009

Leona R. Shapiro, a leading public-health nutritionist, died at her home in Berkeley on Tuesday, Feb. 24, following an illness. She was 89.

Shapiro worked closely with Ruth Huenemann, a Berkeley professor emerita who was founding chair of the campus's public-health nutrition program and leader of the landmark Berkeley Longitudinal Nutrition Study, which followed children from age six months to 16 years. Hundreds of children born in Berkeley in 1969 and 1970 were enrolled in that study, "one of the longest and most in-depth studies on growth and nutrition in the country," said Pat Crawford, director of Berkeley's Atkins Center for Weight and Health and a close colleague of Shapiro. "It was one of the first nutrition studies in the country to systematically chart the growth and development from birth of children in an effort to understand the multitude of factors influencing the development of childhood obesity."

Huenemann, who died in 2005, led the study during its first eight years. In 1977, Shapiro took the helm, securing funding for eight additional years of follow-up.

One of the major findings of the Berkeley study was determination of the critical periods of obesity development in children. Shapiro noted at the time that the research dispelled a common view that "fat babies become fat children," while focusing more attention on the importance of toddlers' eating and activity patterns as a determinant of subsequent obesity.

Many of the lessons learned from this study were communicated in a 1985 report, "Children and Weight: A Changing Perspective," authored by Shapiro and 10 other health experts who were members of the Ad Hoc Interdisciplinary Committee on Children and Weight. The report focused on positive parenting practices and revealed ways in which obsession with thinness was leading to an increase in disordered eating and health problems among adolescents.

In addition to her work on the longitudinal nutrition study, Shapiro collaborated with Lester Breslow, a physician who established the Alameda County Human Population Laboratory, a pioneering study on the life behaviors connected to disease prevention.

"The notion that one's lifestyle can be important in preventing chronic disease really wasn't known 30 years ago," said Sarah Samuels, one of Shapiro's former graduate students. "Before, disease was more about treatment, and nutrition more about preventing deficiencies. Leona contributed to our understanding of the evidence around the associations between diet and health."

Decades as a researcher and mentor

Shapiro was born in New York City on Sept. 5, 1919, and grew up in Chicago. She earned her B.S. in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Illinois in 1940; following more than a decade of military service and employment in Chicago's Department of Welfare, she earned her M.S. in public-health nutrition from Columbia University in 1953.

She then settled in California, working as a dietitian and clinic nutritionist with the Kaiser Foundation Hospital from 1953 to 1958. After Kaiser, Shapiro began working as a lecturer at Berkeley and as a nutritionist with the city of Berkeley's Department of Health. As she maintained both jobs, Shapiro worked toward her doctorate— received in 1974 — at Berkeley's School of Public Health.

In addition to her research, Shapiro was a popular and well-regarded teacher. "She took her responsibility as a mentor very seriously, investing a lot in her students' success, giving them real-world experiences and acknowledging their achievements," said Samuels. "I think she felt that bringing up a new generation of strong public- health-nutrition researchers was an important part of her role at Berkeley and an important contribution to the field."

Throughout Shapiro's career — she retired from Berkeley in 1987 — she served her community in a variety of service organizations. In 1968, Shapiro became the founding president of Friends of Portable Meals in Berkeley, which later changed its name to Meals on Wheels. She was instrumental in raising funds for the city's program, and was also a board member of Alameda County Meals on Wheels.

Shapiro is survived by her sister, Ruth Kadish, of San Francisco; a niece, Johanna Mandel, of El Cerrito; a nephew, David Kadish, of San Francisco; and a grandniece and grandnephew.

There will be a memorial service and celebration of Shapiro's life at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, at the North Berkeley Senior Center (1901 Hearst Ave. at Martin Luther King Jr. Way). Donations in Shapiro's memory may be made to The Leona R. Shapiro Scholarship Fund, Rubicon Programs Inc., 2500 Bissell Ave., Richmond, CA 94804.

— Sarah Yang