Charles Epstein, geneticist and musician, dies at 77

Last December, Charles Epstein added a title to his name. In addition to physician, medical researcher, cellist, gardener, world traveler, husband and father, he became a maestro.

That day, though ill from cancer, Epstein conducted the Sunset Youth Orchestra in a Mozart concerto, with his granddaughter playing cello and his son, Jonathan, as bassoon soloist. Epstein told his wife it was the last best day he ever had.

There were many best days for Charles Epstein, a world-renowned geneticist, accomplished amateur musician and dedicated member of the Bay Area Jewish community. He did so many things well, he easily earned yet another honorific: Renaissance man.


Charles Epstein

Epstein died Feb. 15 at his home in Tiburon from pancreatic cancer. He was 77.


Epstein excelled professionally and personally, especially during the sorest trial of his life. In 1993 he became a victim of the infamous Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber, suffering internal injuries and losing several fingers.

“Everybody said he would be angry and depressed,” recalled his wife, Lois Epstein, of that nightmare. “But he wasn’t. He handled it with great strength and rose above it. He returned to work, he played the cello. He was a very brave man.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1933 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Charles Epstein grew up in a religious home. He began studying cello as a child, never losing his passion for music.

He also developed a passion for medicine after enrolling in Harvard, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1955. During those undergraduate days, he went on a blind date with Radcliffe student and fellow music lover, Lois Barth of Brookline, Mass.

“He was a brilliant man, a handsome man, and we came from similar Jewish backgrounds,” she recalled. “We both were interested in medical school, so we shared a passion for science, music, theater and art.”

Three months later, at Cambridge Common, he got down on his knee and proposed, offering Lois a ring made from a used cello string. She still has that ring.

The two attended Harvard Medical School together. Epstein graduated first in his class, and later found himself drawn to the fast-growing field of medical genetics. The couple moved to Seattle, where Epstein worked in a premiere lab at the University of Washington.

There he wrote a seminal review of a genetic disease known as Werner’s syndrome, which causes premature aging. “People still study that paper to this day,” Lois Epstein said.

After a period with the National Institutes of Health, in 1967 Epstein and his family moved to the Bay Area, where he joined the faculty at UCSF, chairing the medical genetics division of the department of pediatrics. He remained at the university until 2005.

Over the years, Epstein conducted groundbreaking research into Down syndrome, writing numerous journal articles on the subject, many of which he co-authored with his wife, by then an accomplished immunogist and researcher in her own right.

The concept of the genetic counselor, which he pioneered at UCSF and at satellite clinics he founded, became the model for the profession today.

“We used to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge talking about experiments we could do,” Lois remembered. “We collaborated, and it was just a delight.”

The couple had four children, all of whom became accomplished amateur musicians like their parents. The family first belonged to Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, but later joined Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Lois Epstein attributes her husband’s moral bearing to his Jewish upbringing.

“He grew up in the Jewish tradition,” she said, “and he espoused the moral and ethical principles of Judaism. This house was the center of the celebration of all the Jewish holidays.”

The Epsteins’ work often took them to medical conventions around the world. No trip was complete unless they brought back some exotic new musical instrument to add to their prized collection.

As a cellist, Epstein often played with local orchestras and chamber groups.

That avocation, and everything else, nearly came to an end one June day in 1993 when Epstein opened a package at his Tiburon home. A bomb, sent by Kaczynski, ruptured both of Epstein’s eardrums and blew off several fingers.

Epstein spent six weeks in the hospital. His eardrums were surgically replaced, and he relearned to play the cello. “He retrained his hands,” Lois Epstein said. “Most cellists pluck with the second finger. He trained to pluck with his pinky.”

For the last 10 years of his life, Epstein worked with the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, as member and chair of the scientific advisory board, and as a member and chairman of the board of trustees.

In semiretirement, Epstein and his wife developed new passions, among them gardening and building elaborate dollhouses (most went to the grandchildren, though several went on display at dollhouse conventions).

Even during his final battle with cancer, Epstein made his mark, winning a prestigious lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Human Genetics last October.

And as always, there was music. “In the last months, much of his time was spent listening to beautiful classical music,” Lois added. “Music was deep in his heart.”

Son Jonathan Epstein remembered his father as “a kind and modest man. He had high expectations, and instilled in us a desire for excellence.”

Charles Epstein is survived by his wife, Lois Epstein of Tiburon; sons David Epstein of Ossining, N.Y, Jonathan Epstein of San Francisco, and Paul Epstein of Piedmont; daughter Joanna Epstein of San Francisco; brothers Herbert Epstein of Watertown, Mass., and Edwin Epstein of Berkeley; and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 20, at Congregation Kol Shofar, 215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.