May 26, 2024
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The Beach Boys Summer II: Leslie Bernstein and Late Bloomers

Continuing our tales of California and the Beach Boys, we continue with another Californian who was an inspiring person and outstanding scientist.

We always love to hear the wonderful stories about Rabbi Akiva, his scholarship and outstanding behavior, as well as his relations with his wife and students. Perhaps the most intriguing part of his story is how he worked as an uneducated, illiterate shepherd until the age of 40 before being inspired to acquire learning and going on to achieve incredible success in his scholarly learning and teaching.

Leslie Bernstein was born Leslie Sklar in Long Beach, California, in 1939. She loved listening to baseball games on the radio, especially when the announcer called out the statistics, and she decided in eighth grade to become a statistician. When she went to UCLA, she majored in mathematics, and was a champion swimmer. As a freshman at age 17, she went with her mother to a swim meet at another school. Her mother pointed across the pool at a boy and said, “There’s a nice-looking Jewish boy—go over and talk to him.” Being a nice Jewish girl, she listened to her mother. Within a few months, she and Saul Bernstein, age 18, were dating regularly. So her mother came to one of their dates and said, “So when are you going to get married already?” They married a few months later, with Leslie aged 18. She was pregnant with her first of three children at age 19 and had to go to school part-time as she supported the family while her husband pursued his premedical and medical school studies. With hard work, she was able to finish her undergraduate degree at age 24, but that was it as she worked to support them and raise her family.

Saul became an orthopedic surgeon. They did well financially, and ultimately Leslie wanted to return to pursue her own ambitions. So at age 39 (I wish I could say 40) she enrolled at USC as a graduate student in biometry, completing her PhD degree three years later. With that she began her scientific studies of the causes and prevention of breast cancer. The study that put her on the map was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1994. It was a case-control study of 545 women with breast cancer and 545 controls. The study showed that women who had 3.8 or more hours per week of physical activity in the year prior to the study had a risk of breast cancer that was 40% that of those who were inactive. This was the first clear-cut demonstration of physical activity as a preventive factor for breast cancer and the negative effects of sedentary behavior. It is said that her early life as an athlete is what stimulated her interest in physical activity and its effects on cancer etiology.

Leslie went on to initiate in 1995 a large cohort study, the California Teachers Study. This study enrolled over 133,000 teachers, members of the teachers union in California, who filled out questionnaires and were then followed for the development of breast cancer and other diseases. To date, it has generated over 200 publications. Importantly, it confirmed and expanded on Leslie’s findings regarding the role of physical activity in the etiology of breast cancer. Another important study it is given credit for is the demonstration in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2005 that aspirin users had a reduced risk of breast cancer. (I can only say that my colleagues and I had published this finding a year earlier in the Journal of the American Medical Association.)

Aside from myriad studies on breast and other female cancers, Leslie also became active in administrative affairs. She became chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at USC, and was later appointed to become the senior associate dean for faculty affairs at the Medical School, all this by the age of 58. At the age of 68. she switched from USC to City of Hope Medical Center, where she remained for 13 years and where she also became dean of faculty affairs and continued her studies of breast cancer etiology. She died in 2019 at the age of 82.

I can truly say that she was Fun, Fun, Fun, I assume, till her Daddy took the T-Bird away. And even after.


Alfred I. Neugut, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/New York Presbyterian and Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Email: [email protected].

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice. Always seek the advice of your qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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