Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died on 9 November 2016. Steve was a pioneer in the field of environmental justice and a thoughtful writer, researcher, and activist.
Steve was born on 3 October 1952, in New Orleans, LA. He moved to North Carolina at a young age, and spent most of the rest of his life there. He attended Vassar College, in New York, where he met his wife Betsy. Shortly after college, Steve and Betsy moved back to North Carolina, where they built a home together in Chatham County. Over time that home grew and the land around it adjusted to accommodate Steve and Betsy’s daughters, Ann and Marion, as well as dogs, chickens, goats, and a donkey. Ann and her husband Sam made a home nearby with their twins Loa and Miles, and Steve was filled with their energy and adventures.
Steve earned a Master’s degree from Duke University and a Doctorate in epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In 1985, he joined the faculty of the Department of Epidemiology and a few years later authored a landmark study of radiation and cancer among the workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This led to a long-standing interest in the effects of the nuclear industry on the health of workers and on nearby communities. Steve undertook studies at several US Department of Energy facilities, as well as critical reassessments of research into the accident at Three Mile Island. His research often challenged orthodoxy, helped support labor and community organizations, and contributed to the eventual passage of a federal compensation program for workers in the US nuclear weapons complex.
In the late 1990s, Steve began a productive collaboration with the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, and together they launched the Community Health Effects of Industrial Hog Operations study. Over time, his efforts drew him to a long-term relationship with the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and the Environmental Justice Summit. He developed a vision of community-based participatory research on environmental injustice that encompassed the rural and urban environments, shining a light on how the costs of industrialized agriculture were carried by the former while the benefits were enjoyed by the latter.
He carried this perspective with him wherever he worked, and news of his passing circled the globe. That news elicited expressions of respect and thanks for the impact that he had on people’s lives and the organizations they created. “Steve and I were brothers,” declared a former postal worker in a settlement in Fukushima; he was right and the sentiment would have made Steve smile. More than that, it energized him and informed how he did his research and with whom.
Steve was a strong advocate for democratic movement building inside the academy as well, supporting the university’s staff in organizing and drawing attention to the corporate influence on public academic institutions. In the classroom, Steve’s passion and enthusiasm inspired students. He has left us with a profound example of a socially committed academic: scores of students whose thinking has been shaped by his teaching, writing, and enthusiasm for using epidemiology in environmental and occupational struggles to improve peoples’ lives.