Remembering Sheldon Krimsky, Longtime Tufts Professor

The Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences, he taught at the university for more than 47 years, focusing on the links between science, technology, ethics, and public policy

Sheldon Krimsky, the Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Tufts Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, passed away on April 23. He was 80.

Krimsky, known affectionately as “Shelly” to his many friends, began his more than 47-year career in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning in 1974. He was also an adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine beginning in 1997, and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, the New School, and New York University.

“I know that this loss will be felt keenly by many who knew Shelly as a wonderful teacher, colleague, collaborator, mentor, and friend, including me,” James Glaser, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, wrote in a message to the Tufts community. “Fiercely loyal, kind, and supportive to family and friends, he was thoroughly devoted to teaching and to his students.”

“Shelly never gave up hope of a better world, whether it was his work on risk perception, abuses of corporation-funded research, hormones, GMOs or DNA,” said Julian Agyeman, professor and interim chair the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP). “He was the consummate activist-advocate-scholar.”

“Shelly was a beloved colleague, friend, and mentor to all of us at UEP. He was our ethical anchor,” Agyeman added. “He was my first contact with UEP in late 1998. He called me about an interview, saying ‘Julian, we want to know about the quality of your mind!’ Only Shelly could say that!”

Krimsky’s wide-ranging research focused on the links between science, technology, and ethics, particularly on how they relate to public policy. He was prolific in his research and scholarship, writing 17 books, most recently Understanding DNA Ancestry.

Other books include GMOs Decoded, Science in the Private Interest, Hormonal Chaos, Biotechnics and Society, and Genetic Alchemy.

In his 2012 book, Genetic Justice, Krimsky combined themes that recurred in his work, pointing out in a Tufts Now story that DNA evidence isn’t always reliable and that government agencies have created large DNA databases that pose a threat to civil liberties.

He also published more than 235 articles and essays on the regulation and social and ethical aspects of science and technology. He was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and chaired its Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility.

Krimsky served on the NIH’s National Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee from 1978 to 1981, and was a consultant to the Office of Technology Assessment, and a co-founder and member of the board of directors for the Council for Responsible Genetics. In addition, he was a fellow of the Hastings Center on Bioethics, and served on the editorial board of seven noted journals.

He also taught at the University of South Florida, Boston University, SUNY at Stony Brook, and Wesleyan University. He received a B.S. from Brooklyn College, an M.S. in physics from Purdue University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University. 

Born in Brooklyn, he embraced his New York roots, eventually living part-time in Greenwich Village, where he was often seen in Washington Square Park or getting his daily cup of coffee and a bagel in cafés. He also played guitar and harmonica, sometimes jamming with friends, and writing and improvising songs.

“Shelly Krimsky carried me through tough times at Tufts with his resolve, generosity, and sense of fairness,” said John McDonald, a professor music. “He always seemed young to me, driven by and excited by his work. He was generous to me through music, and was particularly supportive to me when I was a young faculty member.”

“For one so accomplished, Shelly’s utter humility was disarming,” said Agyeman. “Always more interested in listening to others rather than talking about himself, he was truly a man for all seasons.”

He is survived by his wife Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky; his two children, Alyssa Krimsky Clossey, A93, and Eliot Krimsky, A01, along with their spouses Will Clossey, A93, and Lisa Benger; and his three grandchildren, Benjamin Perry Clossey, A23, Andrew Krimsky Clossey, A26, and Siona Rose Krimsky.

“I admired my father’s passion for learning and researching,” said Alyssa Krimsky Clossey, a web developer with Tufts Technology Services. “He was devoted to the Tufts community and deeply loved by family and friends. He will be tremendously missed."

In lieu of flowers, Krimsky’s family asks for donations to be made to the Sheldon Krimsky Fund for Environmental Ethics and Values, which has been established at Tufts to promote environmental ethics. Donations can also be mailed to Tufts University, P.O. Box 3306, Boston, MA 02241-3306. 

The university will hold a celebration of Krimsky’s life on the Tufts campus in the fall. Event details will be included as plans are formalized. Krimsky’s family has asked that friends and colleagues share their thoughts and memories of him. To learn more about his life’s work, please visit his website.

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