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Ruth Roemer, Public Health

  • By Dan Gordon, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Sep 1, 2002 8:00 AM

She is a woman on the move. Here she is sharing her wisdom at a national meeting of Merger Watch, a group concerned with how the marriage of religious and nonsectarian hospitals is affecting reproductive health.

There she goes to Paris for the Ninth World Conference on Tobacco or Health, playing an instrumental role in the World Health Organization's (WHO) decision to launch the first international convention on tobacco control. Now she's back in her office, banging away on her manual typewriter as she writes yet another letter of recommendation for a student.

At 86, Ruth Roemer continues to be everywhere, taking on Goliaths no less than the tobacco industry and anti-abortion lobby. In her fifth decade as a member of the School of Public Health faculty, she seems not to have slowed a step.

Born in Hartford, Conn., during World War I, Roemer settled with her mother and sister in Milford, a Republican town where Roemer considered herself a bit of a radical. She majored in English at Cornell University and planned to teach, but changed her mind after touring Europe with the American Student Union in 1936.

"I came back knowing I had to do something relevant to the social conditions of the United States, and this terrible threat of fascism in the world," she says.

Roemer enrolled in Cornell Law School, where she co-edited the Cornell Journal of Opinion with fellow student Milton Roemer. "Our faculty advisory committee É joked that the co-editors would have to work closely together, but wouldn't necessarily have to get married to do it," she recalls. But marry they did, in 1939, and she went to work as a labor lawyer through the 1940s and 1950s.

It wasn't until she returned to Cornell Law School to work with Professor Bertram F. Willcox that Roemer found her true calling in public health. Her research with Willcox resulted in a book, "Mental Illness and Due Process," that called for a transformed system in which decisions on admitting patients to mental hospitals would be based initially on medical, rather than legal, matters. Less than two years after the book was published, the New York State Legislature unanimously passed the law recommended by the study.

In 1962, the Roemers (who now had a son, John, and a daughter, Beth) moved to Los Angeles and to UCLA. Almost immediately, Ruth became the principal organizer and vice president of the California Committee on Therapeutic Abortion, which spearheaded abortion law reform in the state in 1967.

She has made her mark in many other ways, most prominently with seminal work in tobacco control. In 1996, she co-wrote a document that helped launch the WHO's first international convention on tobacco control. The treaty, which is currently being negotiated by 160 countries, will include guidelines on legislation as well as protocols for such issues as advertising, smuggling and taxation.

Roemer continues to teach every quarter and helped shape a new course aimed at giving a public health perspective to premed students and other undergraduates.

"I guess the reason I'm here at age 86," Roemer says, "is that I find it bracing to be with young people, and perhaps to help them."

Ruth Roemer passed away on August 1, 2005 in Los Angeles. She was 89.