Ruth Roemer, a pioneer in public health law who led efforts to regulate tobacco use and expand women's reproductive rights, died Monday after a short illness at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in West Los Angeles. She was 89.
Called a modern icon of public health by colleagues, Roemer was a longtime UCLA professor whose unique background as a lawyer in a field dominated by physicians made her an influential advocate.
"She was a giant. She really recognized before many others the untapped potential for changes in laws and regulations to improve and protect public health," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, a UCLA professor and director of public health for Los Angeles County.
A 1939 graduate of Cornell Law School, Roemer worked as a labor lawyer during the 1940s, representing clients such as the United Electrical Workers union.
She shifted her focus to health law in the 1960s after participating in a landmark study of the laws governing admission to mental hospitals in New York state. Using the law to promote public health objectives guided her over the next four decades.
Soon after joining the UCLA School of Public Health in 1962, she helped organize the California Committee on Therapeutic Abortion, which spearheaded abortion law reform in the state. She was prominent in campaigns to add fluoride to public water supplies across the country and prodded the World Health Organization to focus on tobacco control issues.
She also inspired advocates pursuing a wide range of public health agendas, including eliminating obesity and fighting discrimination against people with AIDS.
"She was a mentor ... by what she had already done," said David I. Schulman, the nation's first government AIDS discrimination attorney, who heads the AIDS/HIV unit in the Los Angeles city attorney's office. Schulman, who had known Roemer for 15 years, said that the recent merging of public health and human rights into a distinct field is based on her work.
Born Ruth Joy Rosenbaum in Hartford, Conn., Roemer grew up in a family with socialist leanings and described herself as a radical from an early age. When she was 9, she lost her father, a plant pathologist, to a bacterial infection caused by a tooth extraction. She was raised by her mother in the conservative town of Milford.
She majored in English at her father's alma mater, Cornell, but switched fields after witnessing the rise of fascism in Europe during a tour there with the American Student Union in 1936.
"I came back knowing I had to do something relevant to the social conditions of the United States, which was just coming out of the Depression, and this terrible threat of fascism in the world," she told a UCLA interviewer a few years ago. "So I walked over to the [Cornell] law school and asked if they would take me."
She became co-editor of the Cornell Journal of Opinion with Milton Roemer, a premed student. After graduating in 1939, they married and moved to New York, where Milton studied medicine.
He became a legend in public health as a pioneering advocate of universal health insurance and health maintenance organizations, or HMOs. He also developed what became known as "Roemer's Law," which proved that the availability of hospital beds created a demand for their use when hospital insurance was widespread. He taught public health at UCLA for 38 years, until his death in 2001.
Her interest in public health developed in the late 1950s, when she became a research associate at Cornell Law School. She teamed up with colleague Bertram Willcox in research that was published in 1962 as the book "Mental Illness and Due Process," which called for significant reforms in New York's system for admitting patients to mental hospitals. The reforms were adopted by the New York legislature two years later.
That success "sold me on the field of health law," Roemer told The Times in 1986. "I figured if you could get action that quickly, that was the field I wanted to be in."
Soon after joining the UCLA faculty in 1962, she began to work on one of the most controversial issues of the day.
As vice president of the California Committee on Therapeutic Abortion, she helped lead a coalition of lawyers, doctors and social scientists in support of the Beilensen Act, a landmark 1967 law that legalized abortions in special cases: for women who became pregnant as the result of rape or incest; those whose physical health was endangered by pregnancy; and for girls younger than 15 whose pregnancy might be the result of statutory rape.
During the last two decades, Roemer concentrated on reducing tobacco use globally. "She thought tobacco use was an epidemic," her son, John, said in an interview Thursday. "But it was a relatively easy thing to change and would have a massive effect on people's health."
Roemer herself had been a heavy cigarette smoker, until her husband persuaded her to stop in 1961. She switched to smoking pipes until she was able to give up smoking entirely in 1972.