Longtime Tiburon resident John Greenspan was leader in oral HIV research
John Simon Greenspan, a longtime Tiburon resident and world-renowned researcher who made several groundbreaking discoveries in the field of oral HIV and AIDS research, died March 31 after a period of declining health. He was 85.
Dr. Greenspan was a distinguished professor emeritus of oral pathology in the Department of Orofacial Sciences at University of California at San Francisco School of Dentistry, and his five-decade research career centered on pathology, virology and immunology. In addition to studying the relationship between oral health and HIV/AIDS, his research focused on oral cancer, the oral manifestations of autoimmune diseases and spanned epidemiology, public and global health and implementation science.
Working with his wife, Deborah, who also was a researcher and clinician in oral medicine and dental surgery, he became well known for the identification of the oral condition hairy leukoplakia, which is often found in people with early untreated HIV infections. Hairy leukoplakia is an early marker of a failing immune system and became part of the protocol for diagnosing AIDS. It was incorporated by the Centers for Disease Control in its case definition of HIV infection in 1981.
Dr. Greenspan also identified a connection between hairy leukoplakia and the Epstein–Barr virus, which triggers the condition.
Dr. Greenspan was born Jan. 7, 1938, in east London to Nathan Greenspan and Jessie Dion Greenspan, who were grocers. He spent most of his childhood in London and Essex and enrolled in the Royal London Dental Hospital. He earned a bachelor’s in anatomy in 1959 and a bachelor’s in dental science in 1964.
After going on to a joint training program in oral pathology and histochemistry/cell biology, partly at London’s Royal Postgraduate Medical School and Hammersmith Hospital, he earned his doctorate in experimental pathology in 1967.
He was admitted to membership in the Royal College of Pathologists in 1971 and became a fellow shortly afterward.
He was a senior lecturer and consultant at the Royal Dental Hospital’s School of Dental Surgery from 1968 to 1972, according to a biographical profile he completed for the University of California at Berkeley archives on the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco.
He met Deborah at the Royal Dental Hospital, and they were married in 1962. She went into practice near the hospital where her husband worked, and the two became very interested in dentistry as a part of medicine.
“We felt privileged to be involved in what was intellectually an explosive period of discovery,” he said in the UC Berkeley oral interview.
The couple first came to the U.S. for Dr. Greenspan’s yearlong sabbatical in 1972, and he worked at UCSF that year. They returned to England for three years and then moved to the U.S. for good in 1976. Dr. Greenspan joined the faculty at UCSF, where he did a fellowship in oral medicine, studying oral soft-tissue disease and the side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy on the head and neck.
He was the founding director of the UCSF AIDS specimen bank in 1982, which he continued to lead for many years, and was the founding chairman of the UCSF division of oral biology. In 1988, he became chairman of the department of stomatology, and in 1992 was named the director of the AIDS Clinical Research Center.
Dr. Greenspan supervised or mentored more than 120 physician and dental scientists, including Dr. Ophir Klein, an adjunct professor at UCSF and director of Cedar-Sinai Medical Center’s Children’s Health Enterprise.
The two met when Klein was a trainee at UCSF about 20 years ago.
“He took me under his wing, he told me which types of grants to apply for, he introduced me to important people in the field,” Klein said. “He was very supportive and gracious and interested in helping the next generation.”
Dr. Greenspan also served as president of both the American Association of Dental Research and the International Association of Dental Research and as chair of the University of California Faculty Senate. He was also a member of the National Academy of Medicine.
In addition to publishing more than 300 papers and four books on oral aspects of AIDS, oral pathology and immunopathology, Dr. Greenspan spoke at many international conferences. He was an associate editor and board member of several journals and was a founding editor of the medical journal Oral Diseases.
He was a recipient of several prestigious awards, including the American Association for Dental Research Distinguished Scientist Award, the American Dental Association’s Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Clinical Research, and, with his wife Deborah, the UCSF Academic Senate Research Award in Translational Science. In 1990, Georgetown University awarded him an honorary doctorate.
“He and Deborah were one of the first to recognize the manifestation of AIDS before AIDS was recognized itself — all that work was extremely important,” John Featherstone, then the dean of the UCSF School of Dentistry, said in a newspaper interview when Dr. Greenspan was honored by the American Association for Dental Research. “He’s been a tremendous influence on many people as a mentor and a guider of many young people.”
The Greenspans moved to the Reedlands neighborhood in Tiburon in 1976 and raised their two children in town, sending them to Reed Union School District schools and Marin Country Day School. He loved skiing, travel, gardening, reading, fine dining and fine wines, and he doted on his exuberant Labradoodle, Yoda.
In addition to his wife, Greenspan is survived by the couple’s son, Nick Greenspan of London, and daughter, Louise Greenspan of San Francisco, and four grandchildren: Conor, Jack, Ella and Jacob. His sister Betty died in 2010.
The family held a small, private funeral. A memorial service will be held at UCSF this summer.
Donations in his memory may be sent to the Greenspan Fund at UCSF Foundation, P.O. Box 45339, San Francisco, CA 94145, which supports promising young dentists in becoming UCSF faculty clinicians and researchers.
Reach Tiburon reporter Deirdre McCrohan at 415-944-4634.