Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s eighth president, dead at 88 on April 21, 2020, of COVID-19

Donald Kennedy, Stanford’s eighth president, dead at 88 on April 21, 2020, of COVID-19

Donald Kennedy, who served as Stanford’s eighth president, helped set the stage for its transformation into one of the nation’s top research universities.

Donald Kennedy, a neurobiologist who became the eighth president of Stanford in 1980 and helped set the stage for its transformation into one of the nation’s top research universities during his 12 years in office, died April 21, 2020, of COVID-19 at Gordon Manor, a residential care home in Redwood City where he resided for the past two years.

Donald Kennedy, president emeritus and Bing Professor of Environmental Science. (Image credit: Stanford News Service)

Kennedy, who experienced a serious stroke in 2015, was 88.

In his scholarly research, which centered on the properties of small nerve cells, Kennedy established that complex forms of motor activity can be elicited by stimulation of single nerve cells located in the central nervous system of the crayfish. He subsequently pioneered a new technique of dye injection into single nerve cells so that the whole axon, dendrite and cell body of the cell can be seen in the light of the microscope.

His tenure as president was marked by a renewed commitment to teaching by the university, which opened the Stanford Humanities Center, expanded interdisciplinary studies and added campuses overseas. In 1988, Stanford launched Bing Stanford in Washington, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to live, study and work as interns with government agencies and nonprofit organizations in Washington, D.C.

“As we mourn the loss of Don Kennedy, we also salute his enormous contributions to Stanford and to our country,” said Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne.

“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.”

Kennedy encouraged students to engage in public service by launching a program now known as the Haas Center for Public Service. The Haas Center now offers the Donald Kennedy Public Service Fellowship, which funds summer service projects for undergraduate students.

Commissioner of the FDA

In 1977, Kennedy took a leave of absence from Stanford to become commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President Jimmy Carter. He later told an interviewer that “the opportunity to serve government is one that scientists should come to regard as a routine part of their career patterns, just as many academic lawyers, political scientists and economists do.”

In deliberating over whether to accept the job, Kennedy said he also thought about his exhortations to students in Stanford’s Human Biology Program to get involved in matters of public policy – and he realized that he should follow his own advice.

Among the challenges he faced at the FDA were controversies over the banning of saccharin, the alleged cancer cure Laetrile, the risks associated with antibiotics in animal feeds, alcoholic beverage labeling, and chronic complaints that the approval process for new drugs either allowed dangerous drugs into the market or impairs innovation.

In 1979, when Kennedy returned to Stanford as provost, the New York Times praised his leadership of the FDA:

“When he came to Washington two years ago, the agency was torn by internal dissension and the charge in Congress that it had become chummy with the industries it regulates. Morale has been raised and the FDA’s reputation is decidedly one of independence. One measure of the respect that Mr. Kennedy won is that spokesmen for both consumer and industry groups, who seldom agree on anything, rate him equally high.”

In 1980, Stanford named Kennedy as its eighth president. He succeeded Richard W. Lyman, who became president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Editor-in-chief of Science

In 2000, Kennedy became editor-in-chief of Science. In an essay introducing readers to Kennedy, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich called Kennedy “one of the broadest, warmest, most talented and most literate scientists ever to grace our business.”

“Among the privileges I most enjoyed at Science was oversight of the weekly editorial page,” Kennedy wrote in A Place in the Sun. “In my nearly eight years at the helm, I had the opportunity to express my views on more than a hundred occasions, writing opinion pieces on such areas of science and policy as dual-use [science can be deployed for good or evil], government secrecy, bioengineering, stem cell research, and climate change that I continue to find most compelling and in need of attention. On occasion I would inject a bit of humor, allowing me to flex my creative muscle.”

In 2008, Kennedy, who had been flying back and forth between Stanford and Washington, D.C., returned to the Farm, where he resumed teaching undergraduates, as well as master’s students enrolled in the Graduate School of Business. He engaged with students across the academic spectrum – from advising undergraduates and writing letters of recommendation for former students to serving on dissertation committees for PhD candidates.

Kennedy was active on a wide variety of boards, nonprofit organizations, foundations and scientific advisory boards, including the national advisory board of the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, and the board of directors of QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization based in Palo Alto that connects the nation’s brightest students from low-income backgrounds with leading institutions of higher education and further opportunities. He served as scientific advisor to the PBS NewsHour, and as co-chair of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Kennedy also served on the board of directors of Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation.

From Jan. 2005 to June 2013, Kennedy served as a trustee of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which works with partners around the world for social, cultural and environmental change designed to improve the lives of children, families, and communities.

Kennedy, who was born in New York City on Aug. 18, 1931, earned a bachelor’s degree (1952), a master’s degree (1954) and a doctorate (1956) at Harvard University.

Presiding over Stanford’s annual Commencement exercises, Kennedy delighted in sending the graduates on their way with a favorite quotation from former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. “Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don’t forget when you leave why you came.”

He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 and is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the National Commission for Public Service, and the American Philosophical Society.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, Robin Kennedy, of Menlo Park, California; children Page Kennedy Rochon, of Washington, D.C.; Julia Kennedy Tussing, of Menlo Park, California; Cameron Kennedy, of Washington, D.C.; Jamie Hamill, of Las Vegas; their spouses Mark Rochon, Ted Tussing, Rick Desimone and Rosario Hamill; and nine grandchildren.

A celebration of life will be announced by the family and Stanford University when family, friends and members of the Stanford family can safely congregate.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to: Stanford Hillel (https://stanford.hillel.org/), the Haas Center for Public Service (https://haas.stanford.edu/) or the Robin and Donald Kennedy Fund for Jewish Studies (https://library.stanford.edu/spc/donate).


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