Mourning the passing of Dr. John Greenspan

April 07, 2023
CFAR Special Update

Dr. John S. Greenspan, a beloved member of our community and an internationally renowned HIV researcher, passed away on March 31, 2023, at the age of 85.

Dr. Greenspan was a pioneer in the study of the oral aspects of AIDS, including the co-discovery (with his wife Dr. Deborah Greenspan) of the “oral hairy leukoplakia” lesion and its link to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). He served as Director of the UCSF AIDS Research Institute (ARI) promoting groundbreaking science from 2003 until 2012.  Dr. Greenspan also founded and directed the AIDS Specimen Bank in the UCSF Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), with specimens from the repository he founded used in the identification and discovery of the HIV virus. Throughout his career, he worked collaboratively across disciplines both through his research activities and his leadership in roles across many campus and national organizations.

Some summaries of the highlights of his career can be found at the links below.

As the current directors of the AIDS Research Institute and the Center for AIDS Research, we extend our deepest condolences to Dr. Greenspan's family, friends, and colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the HIV research community, but his legacy will continue to inspire future generations of researchers.

We invite the HIV research community to join us in commemorating Dr. Greenspan's life and contributions to the field. Please see some remembrances below. If you’d like to share your remembrances and stories of working with Dr. Greenspan, please email them to, and we will compile them on the ARI website.

We also invite you to honor his memory by continuing to push forward in the fight against HIV/AIDS.


Diane V. Havlir, MD (ARI Director and Robert L. Weiss Memorial Chair for HIV/AIDS Research):

John Greenspan was giant in the world of HIV research.  He was a first-class scientist, a great mentor and teacher. As ARI Director, he catalyzed the career of scores of young investigators. We all loved talking with John- he was always excited to hear about the latest science in all disciplines.  He and his wife Deborah often asked about our families, and they frequently hosted lively social events. John promoted the UCSF collaborative culture within UCSF and across the globe. We will not forget his many contributions and we will treasure his memory.

 Monica Gandhi, MD, MPH (CFAR Director):

John Greenspan was one of the most accomplished research scientists of the early AIDS era at UCSF.  He and his wife – Dr. Deborah Greenspan – were both dentists and oral health PhD researchers and helped define the oral HIV manifestations of both untreated and eventually treated HIV infection. John was involved with the Women’s Interagency HIV Study and helped found shape its direction at UCSF.  He contributed greatly to the Center for AIDS Research, leading the AIDS Specimen Bank and supporting the CFAR in his role as Director of the AIDS Research Institute.  On a personal note, Dr. John Greenspan was kind, compassionate, bright, a fierce advocate for patients, a staunch supporter of women research scientists at UCSF, and a powerful and inspirational leader.  He will be greatly missed. Dr. Deborah Greenspan wrote the CFAR yesterday saying ‘John and I had a wonderful life together and at UCSF’ Our heartfelt condolences and appreciation to the whole Greenspan family.”

 Paul Volberding, MD (Former ARI and CFAR Director):

John was a true leader and completely committed to advancing HIV research and to our UCSF effort over a career lifetime. From establishing a groundbreaking biospecimen bank at a time when the term AIDS was first coined, to identifying and characterizing a signature clinical manifestation of even early immune impairment, oral hairy leukoplakia, to his leadership of collaborative programs including the AIDS Clinical Research Center and the AIDS Research Institute, John lived at the heart of our vibrant community. He immediately saw the political implications of the AIDS epidemic and brought in leaders at the University, state, and national levels to support UCSF’s response. His partnership with his wife Deborah, also a leading HIV scientist was a model for many. John was always “in the room where it happened” and will be sorely missed.

 Steven Deeks, MD (Professor of Medicine):

John was one of the key architects that built what became the world-class HIV research enterprise we now have at UCSF.

Academically, he made fundamental some fundamental discoveries, including the description of hairy leukoplakia, which in the 1990s was a key marker that people were beginning to progress. It was even used as a clinical endpoint in the first generation of antiretroviral drugs. More importantly, he helped build a massive research infrastructure that provided the platform for a new generation of researchers to start their career.

On a personal level, he pushed me and Jeff Martin to build what became the SCOPE cohort, and provided uncredited behind the scenes support for years. It was only after I became fully independent that I realized how much support he and his team had been providing for so many years.

 He did all of this with poise, class and humor. A truly lovely man.