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Donald Kennedy, former Stanford president and FDA chief, dies of COVID-19

Donald Kennedy
Donald Kennedy, then head of the FDA, speaks at the Stanford commencement in 1978.
(Chuck Painter / Stanford News Service)

Donald Kennedy, a former president of Stanford University who also led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and served as editor in chief of the journal Science, has died at a care facility in Redwood City of complications of COVID-19. He was 88.

Kennedy, who suffered a serious stroke in 2015, died Tuesday at Gordon Manor, a residential care home where he had lived for the last two years, Stanford said in a statement. Nursing and assisted living facilities have become hot spots for outbreaks of the disease, which is caused by the new coronavirus.

Kennedy, a neurobiologist who was known for his humor, dedication to students and bold leadership, spent the bulk of his career in science and education at Stanford University.

Born Aug. 18, 1931, in New York City and educated at Harvard, he taught at Syracuse before arriving at “the Farm” in 1960 as an assistant professor. Kennedy climbed the ranks to become chair of the school’s biology department and helped create and, for a time, directed Stanford’s interdisciplinary human biology program.

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Students recalled his unconventional teaching style in a published history of the program.

“My favorite Hum Bio memory is of Donald Kennedy demonstrating echolocation in bats by climbing up on the desk in the front of the room, making ‘bat noises,’ and flapping his arms,” Catherine Garzio, class of 1979, said. “It was very funny, given what an important person he was. I’ve thought of it often over the years when other ‘important people’ take themselves too seriously.”

Kennedy took a break from Stanford to serve as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration under President Carter from 1977 to 1979. He was involved in debates about a ban on saccharin, the approval process for drugs and medical devices, and the use of antibiotics in animal feeds.

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Of Congress’ later reversal of the saccharin ban, he joked: “That established a principle. You shouldn’t have cancer-causing substances in the food supply unless people like them a lot,” The Times reported in 1991.

Kennedy returned to Stanford and became president in 1980. During his 12-year tenure, he presided over a $1.1-billion fundraising campaign, the largest attempted by a university at the time. He emphasized teaching over research and oversaw a refashioning of the school’s Western culture curriculum to incorporate the achievements of women and minorities. He invited students to join him on daily runs around “the Dish,” a radio antenna and landmark on the Stanford campus.

Kennedy withstood several controversies, including the university’s continued ownership of land leased by a farming operation that used migrant labor, investments in companies that did business with South Africa, and his relationship to the Hoover Institution. During his tenure the university also weathered the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused $160 million in damage to the campus.

In 1991, Kennedy announced his resignation amid allegations that Stanford had misspent millions of dollars in federal research grants, including billing for the depreciation of a 72-foot yacht, floral arrangements for the president’s residence and upkeep of a mausoleum where Stanford’s founding family was buried. The university refunded the government for many of the charges and was largely cleared of wrongdoing, but the controversy nonetheless dogged Kennedy.

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“It is very difficult, I have concluded, for a person identified with a problem to be the spokesman for its solution,” Kennedy wrote in a resignation letter to the university’s board of trustees.

From 2000 to 2008, Kennedy served as editor in chief of the journal Science. He later returned to teaching undergraduates and served on the boards of numerous nonprofits and scientific organizations.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, Robin Kennedy; children Page Kennedy Rochon, Julia Kennedy Tussing, Cameron Kennedy, Jamie Hamill; and nine grandchildren.


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