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Saturday, July 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Social justice focus of Oscar Gish's life

Seattle Times staff reporter

Oscar Gish was known for his wit as well as his social conscience. His colleagues recall him saying, "If you want to understand the poor, study the rich."

Mr. Gish, a renowned economist, author and academic — most recently, senior lecturer at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine's Department of Health Services — died July 3. He was 75.

A major focus of Mr. Gish's life was social justice, friends and family say. He valued equality and argued for it both here and abroad. He was known as an expert on international health policies and the phenomenon of "brain drain."

Mr. Gish referred to his students as colleagues. His office door was open, and he often hosted seminars and family dinners in his Seattle home.

"Every day I knew him, he always made me laugh," said his wife of 21 years, Elizabeth Sims. "He had a wonderful sense of humor. He loved life so much."

Mr. Gish was born on Sept. 6, 1928, in Brooklyn, N.Y., into a Russian Jewish immigrant family.

He met Paul Berman, a close friend of about 60 years, when they were both teenagers. The two bonded around civil rights, politics and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Berman said.

"He had a deep social conscience," Berman recalled. "He had a good sense of who he was."

Mr. Gish earned his undergraduate degree in history at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College in 1965.

He soon earned advanced degrees from the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands and the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom.

From 1971 to 1973, Mr. Gish served as head of the Tanzanian Ministry of Health's planning and statistics unit.

From 1976 to 1982, he worked as a lecturer and research scientist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health, where he met Elizabeth Sims.

He held a professorial appointment with the World Health Organization in Ethiopia from 1983 to 1984, and worked for the organization in the Ministry of Health in Jakarta, Indonesia, from 1984 to 1989.

In 1989, he joined the faculty at the UW, where he conducted a seminar on international health.

"He was extremely influential in helping generations of students, as well as faculty, come to understand their values and strengthen their commitment to social justice," said William Dowling, professor and chairman of the Department of Health Services.

Besides his wife, Mr. Gish is survived by sons Adam and Alex Gish of Seattle; his brother, Irwin Gish of New Jersey; and two grandchildren.

"My father was, in simplest terms, a good man — he loved people, he was very sociable," Adam Gish said.

"One of the things that has helped me through these last few days was seeing just how much love and respect there was and is for my father."

Matthew Rodriguez: 206-464-3192 or mrodriguez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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