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In Memoriam: Scientist, Policymaker, Science Journal Editor Donald Kennedy

In 2001, while editor-in-chief of Science, Kennedy, center, participated in Stanford University's commencement ceremony. | L.A. Cicero

Donald Kennedy, a neurobiologist, teacher, academic leader, government official, and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine, died on April 21 of COVID-19 in a residential care home. He was 88.

Kennedy’s passing drew a wave of admiration of a life dedicated to enriching and inspiring students, serving society, and supporting science and scientific research.

Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne praised Kennedy’s contributions to Stanford, where Kennedy served as president for a dozen years beginning in 1980. He also was known for his dedication to students in the biological sciences and in interdisciplinary programs he helped establish.

“As a biologist, as a national voice for science, as a vigorous leader of Stanford University and as an engaging teacher beloved by so many students, Don brought to his endeavors an enduring commitment to academic excellence, a deep wellspring of warmth and good humor and a vision for the possibilities always ahead of Stanford,” said Tessier-Lavigne in announcing Kennedy’s death.

Kennedy’s time at Stanford was committed to its students. He introduced interdisciplinary studies and international campuses and built opportunities for undergraduate students to participate in work study programs in Washington, D.C. as interns at government agencies and non-profit organizations. The initiatives were put in place by his formation of the Stanford Humanities Center and Bing Stanford in Washington.

During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy was tapped to head the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, where he took on the risk to humans of antibiotic use by the agricultural sector and pursued legislative improvements to drug regulations. Kennedy held the post from 1977 to 1979.

Kennedy returned to Stanford in 1979 and went on to hold the position as president from 1980 to 1992, watching the university’s endowment grow to the fifth largest in the United States, reported The Washington Post at the time.

Beginning in 2000, Kennedy served eight years as editor-in-chief of Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was a prolific writer, acclaimed editor and friend to many.

Kennedy had a well-known passion for nature, often setting out to enjoy the outdoors and exercise at the same time. | L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Holden Thorp, the current editor-in-chief of the Science Family of Journals, counts himself as a longtime admirer of Kennedy and his book “Academic Duty” that called on professors to focus more of their work on students.

“I have a dog-eared copy of ‘Academic Duty’ that inspired me to go into administration and provided me with guidance in many moments in the decades since it was written. I had hoped to go see Don to thank him for all he did on so many fronts,” said Thorp. “I know how much he was admired by all of you who got to work with him because whenever something good happens, someone inevitably says ‘Don would have liked that.’”

Alan I. Leshner, CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shared his memories of Kennedy during the time they worked together at AAAS.

While editor-in-chief of Science, Kennedy poses at AAAS headquarters. | AAAS Archives

“I very much enjoyed and benefited from the partnership with Don Kennedy,” Leshner said. “In addition to doing such a wonderful job as editor-in-chief of Science, he was a great colleague and adviser as we were shaping the next era for AAAS. I learned a great amount from his deep understanding of science and public policy.”

Kennedy had a stroke in 2015 that led him, three years later, to Gordon Manor, the residential care home in Redwood City, Calif. where he lived for the past two years.

Kennedy was born in New York City, in 1931. He attended Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1952, a master’s degree in 1954 and a doctorate in 1956.

Robin Kennedy, Kennedy’s second wife, wrote in an email cited in Palo Alto Online: “All measures were taken to ensure he did not suffer. He was peaceful and comfortable during his final days. Many in our family were able to say goodbye to him via FaceTime on Sunday night.”


[Associated image: While president of Stanford, Kennedy often rode his bicycle around campus. | Stanford News Service]