Neurobiologist and Former Stanford President Donald Kennedy Dies
Neurobiologist and Former Stanford President Donald Kennedy Dies

Neurobiologist and Former Stanford President Donald Kennedy Dies

Kennedy, who succumbed to COVID-19, served as commissioner of the FDA and editor-in-chief of Science, and is credited with helping to transform Stanford into a top research university.

Amy Schleunes
Amy Schleunes

A former intern at The Scientist, Amy studied neurobiology at Cornell University and later earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa. She is a Los...

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Apr 23, 2020

ABOVE: Donald Kennedy at the Stanford faculty senate

Donald Kennedy, a neurobiologist and Stanford University’s eighth president from 1980 to 1992, died on April 21 of COVID-19, according to a university press release. He was 88 years old.

From 1977 to 1979, Kennedy served as the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and was the editor-in-chief of Science from 2000 to 2008, according to the statement. As president of Stanford, Kennedy is remembered for his commitments to both teaching and public service, including launching a program now called the Haas Center for Public Service, which offers the Donald Kennedy Public Service Fellowship for undergraduates conducting summer service projects.

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

Born in New York City on August 18, 1931, Kennedy studied at Harvard University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1952, a master’s degree in 1954, and a PhD in 1956, the release says. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1960, where he taught in biological sciences and the interdisciplinary Program in Human Biology.

In his scientific research, Kennedy showed that stimulating a single nerve cell in the crayfish central nervous system could elicit complex motor activity, the statement says. He also invented a technique by which dye is injected into single nerve cells, thereby illuminating the axon, dendrite, and cell body.

Kennedy wrote about Stanford undergraduates in his 2018 memoir, A Place in the Sun, according to the university statement, recalling, “During my 12 years as University president, I made a conscientious effort to carve out time to interact with these talented young people. Through teaching, advising and cheering them on—whether on the field, in the classroom, on the stage or in the biology labs—some of my very best Stanford experiences involved my interactions with undergraduates.”

“I will never forget Donald Kennedy getting up on the lab table at the front of the lecture hall and assuming a quadruped position to demonstrate to us the concepts of dorsal, ventral, cephalo, and caudal,” says Ingrid Schwontes Jackoway, a 1979 graduate of Stanford, in The Program in Human Biology at Stanford: The First 30 Years, 1971-2001, states the press release. In 1976, Kennedy received Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Award for Outstanding Service to Undergraduate Education.

Kennedy took a leave of absence from Stanford in 1977 to serve as commissioner of the FDA under President Jimmy Carter, believing that scientists should work in government alongside other academics, according to the statement. He returned to Stanford as provost in 1979 and a year later assumed the role of president.

During his tenure as president, Kennedy navigated a controversial dispute with the federal government over reimbursement for indirect research costs, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and student sit-ins during the South African divestment movement in the mid-1980s, the release states. He stepped down from the office in 1992 and five years later published Academic Duty, a book about the challenges of teaching and research in higher education. 

Writing in his memoir about Science magazine’s editorial page, Kennedy recalls having “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 . . .  government secrecy, bioengineering, stem cell research, and climate change that I continue to find most compelling and in need of attention,” the statement says.

Kennedy was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1972 and was on the national advisory board of the Stanford Institute for Research in the Social Sciences. He was also on the board of directors of QuestBridge, a nonprofit that creates opportunities at leading higher education institutions for low-income students, and the Supporters of Agricultural Research Foundation, and was co-chair of the Committee on Science, Technology, and Law of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, according to the statement. Additionally, he served as a scientific advisor to PBS NewsHour.

Kennedy is survived by his wife, four children and their spouses, and nine grandchildren.