Dr. Helen Abbey, 85, professor of biostatistics at Hopkins for 50 years

March 06, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. Helen Abbey, a retired Johns Hopkins University professor, died Sunday of pneumonia at Stella Maris Hospice. She was 85 and lived in Towson.

A professor of biostatistics at the School of Hygiene and Public Health, Dr. Abbey taught generations of public health scientists from 1949 until ill health forced her retirement in 1999.

She also wrote scholarly articles on medical genetics and chronic diseases.

Dr. Abbey was recalled as a teacher who spoke clearly and with enthusiasm for her subject.

"She put good sense ahead of statistical theory," said Dr. George W. Comstock, a professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health. "She was very good at putting thing into simple words."

Dr. Abbey often lectured with her pet dog at her feet. When one of her pets had difficulty walking, she had it fitted with a wheeled trolley. If the pet was small enough, it sat atop her desk, facing her students. If someone made a joke in class, and there was laughter, the dog often barked along.

Students and faculty said Dr. Abbey was one of the most popular professors in the School of Public Health. In her 50 years, she instructed about 5,000 students.

Dr. Victor A. McKusick, university professor of medical genetics, said: "She was a no-nonsense type of statistician, very much down-to-earth and terribly helpful. She would get her students out of statistical hot water."

"No one took more time to make a student feel comfortable so he or she could do the best they were capable of," said Dr. Scott Zeger, Hopkins chairman of biostatistics. "She loved students first and foremost."

Dr. Alfred Sommer, dean of the School of Public Health, recalled a 1983 trip to Beijing he made with Dr. Abbey: "She gravitated to the students, they flocked to her, and she insisted on informing every visiting dignitary that `the dean was my former student.' I was, and am better for it."

Dr. Abbey won numerous awards. She was designated a "Hero of Public Health" by the school in 1991. In 1971, she was awarded the school's Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching. She won the honor two more times.

She also had won the American Public Health Association Award.

"She never took a vacation. If she went sightseeing, it was connected to her work," said Jane Miller, a neighbor on Ellendale Drive in Towson.

Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., Dr. Abbey was a 1940 graduate of Battle Creek College. She received a master's degree in mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1942 and a doctorate in biostatistics from Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1951.

Dr. Abbey was a gardener and enjoyed skiing and walking. She often kept one or two dogs and as many cats at her home.

She was a member of the American Statistical Association, the Population Association of America, the American Society of Human Genetics and the American Public Health Association.

A memorial service is pending at the School of Hygiene and Public Health.

Dr. Abbey left no immediate survivors.

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