Sheldon J. Segal, 1926–2009
"The work of scientists—social scientists and medical scientists—to develop more effective, safe, socioculturally acceptable methods of family planning is a search for ways to alleviate suffering and enrich the lives of women throughout the world."
— Sheldon J. Segal in a 2008 address to the staff of the Population Council. The speech marked the Council’s 55th anniversary and looked back upon the 40 years of his career that he devoted to the organization and its mission to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.
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Sheldon J. Segal, Distinguished, Dedicated,
and Decorated Scientist
and Beloved Friend, Dies
NEW YORK, NY (19 October 2009) — Sheldon J. Segal, of New York City, who led a team of Population Council scientists that produced several highly effective, long-acting contraceptives, died October 17th at his home in Woods Hole, Mass. He was 83 years old.
Segal directed the research and development of Norplant®, the first contraceptive implant; the Mirena® intrauterine system; and copper-bearing intrauterine devices (IUDs). He also oversaw initial studies of contraceptive vaginal rings, one of which recently completed a Phase 3 clinical study of safety and effectiveness. More than 120 million women around the world have used a long-acting contraceptive developed under Segal’s guidance.
Announcing Segal’s death, Population Council President Peter J. Donaldson said, “Shelly was one of the most influential and most respected figures in the population and reproductive health field. His Council colleagues and his many friends and professional colleagues around the world will miss his scientific acumen, his warmth, his wisdom and good judgment, and his friendship.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., Segal enlisted in the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II at the age of 16, rising to the rank of lieutenant, junior grade, and subsequently earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College. He received his Ph.D. in embryology and biochemistry at the University of Iowa and then became a research assistant professor at the university. Segal joined the Population Council in 1956 as assistant medical director of the Council’s Center for Biomedical Research, and in 1963 was appointed director of the biomedical labs.
In 1970, Segal created the International Committee for Contraception Research (ICCR) to provide a noncommercial, international association for identifying, developing, and testing new contraceptives. “There was a need for a public-sector institution for which the bottom line would be to develop improved methods for the world’s diverse population,” said Segal in an article about the founding of the ICCR.
He left the Population Council in 1978 to become director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s newly formed Division of Population Sciences, where he continued his advocacy for basic and applied research in reproductive biology. He returned to the Population Council in 1991 to assume the position of Distinguished Scientist and chairman of the organization’s Institutional Review Board. Segal, with his wife Harriet, continued his association with the Rockefeller Foundation as Ella Walker Distinguished Fellows at the foundation’s Bellagio Study and Conference Center. He was also an adjunct professor of clinical pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Segal’s contributions to contraceptive development and reproductive health were widely recognized. In 1984, he received the United Nations Population Award, given annually in recognition of outstanding contributions to increasing awareness of population questions and to their solutions. He was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. In 2005 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Academy of Human Reproduction; and in 2007 he was awarded the Joseph Bolivar DeLee Humanitarian Award from the University of Chicago for his contribution to the health of women and infants. In 2008, Segal shared the Prix Galien USA Pro Bono Humanum Award for his role in developing implantable hormone delivery systems. Segal was also awarded the Society of Family Planning’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. He held honorary M.D. degrees from the University of Uppsala in Sweden and the University of Tampere in Finland, and an honorary doctorate of humanities and letters from Mercy College. He was an honorary member of Mexico’s National Academy of Sciences and China’s Academy of Sciences. He was decorated by the President of India, where he spent two years as a visiting professor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and advisor to the Government of India. “He came to us as a friend and left as a brother,” said the president in his remarks. Among his other honors, he received the Order of the Lion of Finland and was elected an honorary member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in England.
Segal served as advisor to the World Health Organization, the United Nations Population Fund, The World Bank, the European Parliament, and the U.S. Congress. He authored or co-authored more than 300 publications on embryology, endocrinology, the biology of reproduction, contraceptive development, and family planning, and served on the editorial boards of six scientific journals.
Among his best known publications was his 1999 book Is Menstruation Obsolete?, written with Elsimar M. Coutinho, which promoted the view that monthly menstruation is not medically beneficial. In 2003, Segal published Hormone Use in Menopause and Male Andropause: A Choice for Women and Men, co-authored with his lifelong friend Luigi Mastroianni, Jr., and Under the Banyan Tree: A Population Scientist’s Odyssey, his analysis of the effects of population growth, and a passionate plea for the education of girls. The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine named Under the Banyan Tree its book of the month for August 2003 and wrote, “Segal is a masterful interpreter of high science . . . the non-specialist reader will nowhere find a better description or explanation of how the human reproduction systems functions and how modern science has helped individuals to regulate and control it.”
“No one was more respected and beloved at the Population Council than Shelly,” said Jim Sailer, Population Council director of corporate affairs. “He had the rare combination of a passionate desire to make a difference in the world together with a grace and human touch that allowed him to connect with people regardless of their status. He has been such an important presence at the Council and in our field for over 50 years. We will miss him terribly.”
Segal enjoyed running, tennis, skiing, and sailing, often in Woods Hole, Mass., where he spent summers. He was a visiting investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where he served as chairman of the board of trustees from 1991 to 2002.
He is survived by his wife, the novelist Harriet Segal; three daughters and their husbands, Amy R. Segal and Andrew Blum of Newton, Mass., Jennifer S. Madden and Dave Madden of Bedford Corners, N.Y., and Laura J. Segal and Matt Petrie of Watertown, Mass.; and seven grandchildren, Peter, Madeline, Thomas, Honor, Charlotte, Cooper, and Jenna.
Photo of Sheldon J. Segal by Karen Tweedy-Holmes/Population Council.
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