Buffler, Patricia Ann Happ (1938–2013)

By: Robert Felder

Type: Biography

Published: July 28, 2021

Updated: July 28, 2021


Patricia Ann Happ Buffler, a renowned epidemiologist and public health expert, was born to Edward M. Happ and Evelyn (Axenroth) Happ in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, on August 1, 1938. After the death of her father, Patricia moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Catholic University of America. She was the first in her family to attend college. She participated in student life as a cheerleader and homecoming queen and served as the nursing representative as a sophomore. After she graduated with a degree in nursing and biology, she put her education to work in Harlem, New York, in the area of public health. In 1962 Patricia Happ married Richard Buffler, a U. S. Navy officer from Texas who was serving in Rhode Island. They held their wedding ceremony in Patricia’s hometown of Doylestown. The couple had two children—son Martyn Buffler and daughter Monique Does.

Patricia and Richard traveled across the country to the University of California at Berkeley, as Richard completed his Ph.D. in geology and Patricia continued her work as a public health nurse. Once Richard finished, Patricia began working on her own education at UC Berkeley. She completed her master’s degree in public health and by 1973 finished her own Ph.D. in epidemiology; her dissertation was titled “Coronary Risk Factors in Japanese-Caucasian Mixed Marriages.”

The Bufflers left California and traveled to Richard’s home state of Texas where Patricia began her academic teaching career and worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health in Galveston before moving on to the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston. Buffler’s interests in fighting cancer found expression in her participation in the group that planned the creation of the University of Texas Medical Branch Cancer Center which offered a unique approach to the effort to defeat cancer through a medical school. In the late 1970s Patricia Buffler initiated a study of liver cancer in cities and counties with the high rates of the typically rare disease to determine if there may be some connection between their geographic proximity to industrial complexes. During this same decade, she appeared before the National Commission of Digestive Diseases in Houston with members of the public and other specialists to discuss the uniqueness of the region in relation to digestive diseases. She also served on the Medical Resources Advisory Panel of the Texas Air Control Board in order to determine if methyl chloroform and methylene chloride deserved regulations as mutagenic or carcinogenic. All of these meetings were open to the public.

In addition to her academically-based community efforts, Patricia Buffler showed a great deal of political passion. In a city council election, along with approximately 300 others, she signed a support letter for a candidate and printed it in the newspaper. Then in a referendum, she served as a chairman of the successful effort to reject the city’s plan to renovate the historic Pier 19 for economic reasons. In 1977 Catholic University of America recognized her with an Alumni Achievement Award. 

From 1980 to 1991, Buffler served dual roles at the UT Health and Science Center in Houston as professor of epidemiology and as director of the Epidemiology Research Unit. She added another leadership responsibility when she became the director of the Southwest Center for Occupational Health and Safety Education Research Center. The University of Texas honored her as the first Ashbel Smith Professor in Public Health, and she twice received the Harriet Cunningham Award for “meritous scientific writing.” She also expanded her influence as a public health advocate on an international level with her work with the World Health Organization; she chaired an expert committee on women, work, and health. She led a delegation to China at the request of their Cancer Institute and provided consultation on lung cancer in the tin mining industry. In 1985 the governor of Texas inducted Patricia Happ Buffler into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, and a year later she served as the president of the Society for Epidemiology Research.

As the 1980s closed so did the Bufflers’ time in Texas. Patricia and her husband moved to California where she started a twenty-two-year tenure at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1991 she began her term as dean of the School of Public Health but still taught in her favorite area, epidemiology. In 1995 Buffler started a study on California childhood leukemia and attempted to “characterize leukemia type, genetic background, and exposure to chemicals that could influence the development of the disease.” As of the late 2010s, the study included more than 3,000 families. Arthur Reingold, one of Buffler’s peers, contended that “it is standard now to look at the interaction of genetic determinants and environmental factors in disease, but Pat was one of the first ones to apply it to leukemia.” Buffler’s energy and enthusiasm continued to propel her into additional areas of leadership and service as she desired to connect this research with others. She began conversations that eventually led to the creation of the Childhood Leukemia International Consortium (CLIC) in 2006; by 2012 the group had collected more than twenty studies from a dozen countries. Buffler planned to attend a meeting with CLIC, but the day before she departed, she died of a stroke on September 26, 2013, as she worked in her office. A memorial fund in her name asked for donations to UC Berkeley School of Public Health. She was survived by her husband, two children, and five grandchildren.

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Patricia Happ Buffler, Coronary Risk Factors in Japanese-Caucasian Mixed Marriages (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1973).

Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer, January 12, 1962. Galveston Daily News, July 18, 1975; July 31, 1977; February 3, 1978; June 29, 1979. Catherine Metayer, et al., “The Childhood Leukemia International Consortium,” Cancer Epidemiology 37.3 (2013). Past Presidents, Society for Epidemiologic Research (https://epiresearch.org/about-us/history/past-presidents/), accessed July 11, 2018. Texas Women’s Hall of Fame: Patricia Happ Buffler, Texas Woman’s University (https://www.twu.edu/twhf/honorees/patricia-happ-buffler/), accessed July 12, 2018. Sarah Yang, “Patricia Buffler, renowned childhood cancer researcher, dies at 75,” Berkeley News, September 30, 2013, University of California Berkeley (http://news.berkeley.edu/2013/09/30/patricia-buffler-dies-at-75/), accessed July 10, 2018.

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Time Periods:

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  • Galveston
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert Felder, “Buffler, Patricia Ann Happ,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 26, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/buffler-patricia-ann-happ.

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July 28, 2021
July 28, 2021

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