Zelen Remembered as Generous, Original Biostatistician

Marvin Zelen may have been one of the world’s leading biostatisticians, but his friends and colleagues remember him as much for his generosity as for his brilliance.

Zelen, a professor in the Biostatistics Department at the School of Public Health, died on Nov. 15 from cancer. He was 87.

Marvin Zelen

L. J. Wei, Zelen’s colleague in the Biostatistics Department, said it is important to “think about how we can learn from this great man.”

Zelen enjoyed a long and productive career in biostatistics research and once advised U.S. President Richard Nixon on cancer research. At the School of Public Health, Zelen served as chair of the Biostatistics Department from 1981 to 1990, and in 1997 the school created an award in his name. The American Cancer Society and American Statistical Association also honored him with prestigious awards during his career.


Although his colleagues and friends praised the accomplishments that propelled Zelen to the top of his field, in interviews this week they said that his character was what set him apart. To Biostatistics professor Xihong Lin, one word that describes Zelen is “generosity.”

“He was always a helpful person and imaginative person,” said Mitchell H. Gail, senior investigator in the biostatistics branch of the National Cancer Institute’s division of cancer epidemiology and genetics. “He was not afraid of controversy, and he really headed things off in the right direction.”

“Even though he was a busy guy, he always had time for other people,” Wei added.

Summer Zheng, a research scientist at the School of Public Health, remembered Zelen as a resource who offered to help with anything, academic or not. Zelen advised Zheng’s thesis, and she remembers that he treated her “not as a student” but “as a colleague…on the same level.”

“He had this relationship with almost anyone that crossed paths with him,” she said. “It’s an extraordinary relationship; it’s not like any other.”

Zelen also leaves behind a legacy in the world of science because of his ingeniuity and work ethic, colleagues said.

“He’s very original with looking into problems and developing theories specific for the problem—and solving the problem,” said Sandra J. Lee, a principal research scientist at the School of Public Health. She described Zelen as “brilliant.”

“Some think he might’ve had a good long career, but I still think [his life] was cut short by cancer,” Lee said, noting that the disease in which he had made such scientific improvements ultimately took his life. “He was always actively engaged, so I still feel very sad he didn’t have a chance to continue [his research].”

Zelen is survived by his wife Thelma; two daughters, Deborah and Sandy; and two grandsons.