Remembering David Katzenstein, HIV and Global Health Expert

Photo courtesy of TeachAids

David Katzenstein, MD, a beloved senior member of the Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine division, died on Sunday, January 24. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 only a few days ago and his health quickly deteriorated.

An infectious diseases research professor,  Katzenstein was passionate about his work on HIV and global health. His expertise, in combination with his supportive nature, made him a sought-after mentor in the field. He was adored by his colleagues in the U.S., as well as those in Zimbabwe, his second home and location at the time of his passing.

In a letter to faculty, Upinder Singh, MD, professor and division chief of infectious diseases and geographic medicine, affectionately described him as generous and supportive . “His expertise and passion in HIV and global health made him a sought after mentor,” she wrote. “He was loved by many in the U.S. and also equally loved in Zimbabwe, his second home.”

Read the full Stanford Medicine obituary 

Colleagues and friends reflect on the life and impact of David Katzenstein:

Remembering David Katzenstein

A reflection by Seble Kassaye, Dean Winslow and Bob Shafer on behalf of David's friends and colleagues at Stanford

The world has lost a special person. David was a good friend, brilliant scientist and researcher and phenomenal mentor whose enthusiasm and passion for his work and life was infectious.  David began his career in the early 1980s working with underserved populations at a Native Tribal clinic in New Mexico and with persons suffering from AIDS at the Haight Ashbury Clinic in San Francisco. As a junior faculty member, he conducted CMV research at the University of Minnesota, and then took a position working as a microbiologist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare between 1985 and 1987.

David was immediately enraptured and since that time, his academic life was intertwined with many colleagues and collaborators in Zimbabwe and other resource poor areas. When the devastating effects of the HIV pandemic became apparent, David pivoted to join the early pioneers conducting HIV research. Between 1987 and 1989, he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Biologics, Evaluation, and Research at the Food and Drug Administration.  In 1989, David joined the faculty at Stanford University where he remained until his retirement to emeritus status in 2017.


David led many important clinical and translational research studies related to his HIV. With his colleagues in the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG), David and his peers led studies that resulted in the approval of life-saving antiretroviral medications for the treatment of HIV. Availability of these potent medications resulted in significant improvement in survival among people living with HIV. However, the specter of drug resistance was a looming challenge especially in the early days of HIV treatment. David dedicated a significant portion of his academic endeavors to study HIV drug resistance, serving as director of one of the Virology Specialty Laboratories for the ACTG for many years. Dr. Katzenstein was an investigator at the ACTG Stanford CRS for over 25 years and spent nearly 20 of those years as a virology specialty laboratory director  He was protocol team member and leader on several ACTG studies and served on numerous ACTG committees, including the Performance Evaluation Committee and the original Virology Committee. Dr. Katzenstein was co-chair of ACTG 384 (“Study of Protease Inhibitor and/or Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitor with Dual Nucleosides in Initial Therapy of HIV Infection”), and he was one of the first investigators to call attention to the issues of drug resistance in Africa, prior to the formal launch of the ACTG’s international program in the early 2000’s.

Recognizing the disparate impact of HIV in resource limited settings, David was a pioneer in Global HIV Research, in the fields of perinatal HIV transmission prevention, and studying different approaches to optimize antiretroviral treatment and laboratory monitoring in different settings around the world. He was committed to adapting technologies to different settings, and as part of his work, he worked diligently to bring laboratory technology to Zimbabwe. Following his retirement from Stanford University in 2017, David became the director of the Biomedical Research Training Institute in Zimbabwe where he led the molecular diagnostics laboratory to support laboratory monitoring of community-based treatment programs in Zimbabwe.  

In all his work, David engaged researchers and trainees from different parts of the world. Sitting in a world class laboratory, he helped to train and mentor many rising scientists and physicians. He was generous with his time, supportive and encouraging; he provided opportunities to people from around the world to train in his laboratory. His collaborations spanned from industry to community, bringing forth novel approaches to bear in the field of HIV. Generous with his time, effort and ideas, David was a cherished mentor for many young and mid-career physicians and scientists, now scattered throughout different academic institutions and agencies in the U.S. and around the world. “None of us would be doing what we do without David helping us get to where we are” is a common sentiment expressed by many of his trainees. With his encyclopedic knowledge, deep intellect, and strong belief in social justice, David helped level the playing field for those from diverse backgrounds. He exemplified academic excellence, and he inspired those around him to aspire to high achievement, all with the goal of contributing to the common good. He nurtured careers of clinicians, basic and social scientists, while encouraging multidisciplinary efforts to tackle the global HIV pandemic.

David lived every day to the fullest, accomplishing more each day than many would in the course of a week or a month. He worked tirelessly and with great joy, giving of himself without reserve. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious, and kept his trainees engaged and motivated. He treated all as his equal, relishing the discussion, never belittling though his knowledge far exceeded that of most of us. His advice was often sanguine, always seeing the cup as half full rather than half empty. He was unrelenting in his efforts to progress, driven by a higher mission of social justice. He gave without any expectation of receiving anything in return – sharing his ideas with friend and competitor alike. His goal was always that the project gets done so we have new knowledge that helps us improve people’s lives throughout the world.

As the true free spirit that he is, David intermingled his academic pursuits while basking in the wonders of this world, always seeking adventure and new experiences. His work led to his many travels around the world, and indeed, his experiences were woven intricately into his work life and would easily read as a bucket list for a true adventurer. From the coasts of California, Mexico, and Cape Town; the temples and ruins in Cambodia; the veld and safari across the African continent; castles and palaces in Europe; Cuba and Iran – nothing was off limits. He loved home too, the tranquility of San Gregorio, California, where he could traipse in his own wilderness, often taking friends, family, and trainees along for his exploration. All of his trainees remained good friends with David and sought him out for advice even years after they had left the nest at Stanford. He always responded – be it email, text message, WhatsApp or phone. He loved to travel and made a point to visit his friends and colleagues even if it meant going out of the way or extending his trip for a night or two.

David lost his life to the COVID-19 on January 24, 2021 in Harare, Zimbabwe. He died in the place that he loves, cared for in the hospital by those that he mentored along the way. He left us all with each other, each of us entrusted to carry on the work that remains. The outpouring of grief at his loss is testament to David who helped so many, touched so many lives, improved the livelihoods of innumerable men and women, inspired and motivated. Friend, family, colleague, mentor – truly a one of a kind. Rest in peace, David – we will miss you but will continue to draw on the foundation with which you left us. Fearless, eager, and joyful.   

Seble Kassaye, MD, MS

Associate Professor at Georgetown and former Stanford Infectious Diseases Fellow 

Bob Shafer, MD

Professor of Medicine (Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine) and, by courtesy of Pathology

Dean L. Winslow, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FPIDS

Professor of Medicine (Hospital Medicine and Infecious Diseases and Geographic Medicine)