Remembering John Greenspan, Founder and Director Emeritus of the AIDS Specimen Bank

John S. Greenspan, BDS, PhD, FRCPath, a distinguished professor emeritus of Oral Pathology in the Department of Orofacial Sciences at UCSF Dentistry and world-renowned AIDS researcher passed away on March 31, 2023.  John was a wonderful man, and a trail-blazer whose formidable presence will be missed by so many. He was an academic, dentist/scientist, pathologist and accomplished administrator who over the course of a remarkable 60 year career in the US and UK had many significant achievements.  John was born in London in 1938 with an early education at the Royal Liberty School, Essex and at Hendon County School, Hendon, England. He completed his university education at the Royal Dental Hospital earning a Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) degree, and a First Class BSc in Anatomy at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. He went on to earn a PhD at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School and subsequently trained at St George's Hospital School of Medicine qualifying as a pathologist with an FRCPath.  In 1976 he relocated with his family from the UK to the San Francisco Bay area taking a position at UCSF. Working with his wife Deborah, he is well known for the identification of the oral condition “hairy leukoplakia” early in the AIDS pandemic and identified a connection between the condition and the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV).  

John held many senior administrative positions at UCSF including Chair of the Department of Stomatology (now called Orofacial Sciences), Associate Dean for Research, Associate Dean for Global Oral Health, and Director of UCSF AIDS Research Institute. He established the UCSF AIDS Specimen Bank in 1982, and together with Dr Deborah Greenspan pioneered the concept of training nurses and physicians on the diagnosis of oral mucosal diseases associated with HIV and AIDS. This led to successful collaborations with multiple principal investigators who were recruiting cohorts of men and women with HIV infection to better understand the natural history of the disease, including its oral features. John was awarded one of the first National Institute for Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR)-sponsored Program Project grants to study oral HIV disease, the Oral AIDS Center, of which he led for 20 years. He was also the founding co-Principal Investigator, together with Dr Troy Daniels, of the NIDCR-funded Sjögren’s International Collaborative Clinical Alliance (SICCA), which is currently the largest biorepository and data registry for Sjögren’s disease in the world. John has been the recipient of over $70 million research grants and contract funding from Federal, State and industry agencies during his 42-year tenure at UCSF. He had published over 300 papers and four books on oral aspects of AIDS, oral pathology, and immunopathology. 

He was an internationally renowned scientist and much sought after speaker featured at many international meetings. He was elected Member of the US National Academy of Medicine and in 1990 was awarded the honorary degree of ScD by Georgetown University. He had been an associate editor or board member of several journals and was a founding editor of the journal Oral Diseases. John was the Burroughs-Wellcome Professor of the UK Royal Society of Medicine and in 2010 the Distinguished Scientist Award recipient of the American Association for Dental Research (AADR). In 2012 he was awarded the American Dental Association Gold Medal for Excellence in Dental Research, and in 2014 John and Deborah Greenspan were the joint recipients of the fourth annual Faculty Research Lecture in Translational Science awarded by the UCSF Academic Senate So many have benefited from his dedicated mentorship over the years through his supervision/mentoring of physician/scientists, dentist/scientists and PhD scientists alike in all aspects of oral pathology and medicine, AIDS/HIV, global oral health and related topics. 

Throughout his career and until the very end of his life, John remained a devoted teacher and mentor, inspiring and guiding generations of dental and medical investigators. He supervised or mentored over 120 physician and dental scientists. He was generous with his guidance and advice to those he mentored. 

John is survived by his wife, Dr. Deborah Greenspan, their two children, Nick and Louise, and four grandchildren. He loved traveling, gardening and his exuberant labradoodle Yoda. His legacy will continue to inspire and inform the work of researchers and clinicians in the field of oral pathology and oral medicine and beyond for years to come.  We have lost a dear friend and valued colleague who will never be far from our thoughts.

Written by:
Richard C. Jordan DDS PhD FRCPath
Professor of Pathology, Oral Pathology & Radiation Oncology
University of California San Francisco