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Denise Kandel
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Denise Bystryn

(1933-02-27) February 27, 1933 (age 91)
Paris, France
Nationality American
Alma mater Bryn Mawr College BA
Columbia University MA, PhD
(m. 1956)
Children 2
Scientific career
Fields Social medicine, epidemiology
Institutions Sociomedical Sciences and Psychiatry at Columbia University and Department of Epidemiology of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute

Denise Kandel (German: [ˈkandəl]; née Bystryn; born February 27, 1933) is an American medical sociologist and epidemiologist, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and Psychiatry at Columbia University and Head of the Department of Epidemiology of Substance Abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute.


Background and family

Bystryn was born to Jewish parents who emigrated in the 1920s, before knowing each other, from eastern Poland to France to attend university. Her father Iser Bystryn (1901–1954) studied in Caen and became chief engineer in a truck factory near Paris. Her mother Sara Wolsky Bystryn (1906–2003) had to abandon her plans to study in Paris for financial reasons and learned making hats and corsets. Kandel was born two years after the marriage (1930) of her parents. She had a younger brother, Jean-Claude Bystryn (1938–2010), who became a known American dermatologist and scientist at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Both parents were fluent in French, but spoke Yiddish at home.

In France up to 1949

The family lived in Colombes near Paris, and Kandel attended a primary school for girls (Ecole des Filles). The children grew up secularly, the family never went to synagogue, and had presents at Christmas. In 1941, when Kandel was eight, and one year after the German invasion of France during the Second World War, Denise’s father was arrested as a "foreign Jew" and interned 100 km south of Paris in the Nazi Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp. After some time he succeeded in fleeing to Cahors in south-western France, where could also meet his family again. While the parents – separated from each other – had to hide at changing places, the children found more stable shelter. Kandel was able to stay as a pupil in the convent Sainte-Jeanne d'Arc of Cahors until spring 1944, when she had to flee even from there and then lived with a family near Toulouse. In 1949 her family emigrated to the US.

In the USA since 1949

Kandel attended the Lycée Français de New York, where she received the Baccalauréat after one year. At the age of 17 she was accepted by Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, where she graduated within two years for financial reasons. She then returned to New York to become a PhD student at Columbia University. Her tutor was Robert K. Merton, and she wrote a thesis in medical sociology about how medical students decide on their professional specialization.

During this time she met neuropsychiatrist Eric Kandel, future recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. They married in 1956 and had two children.

Scientific work

Kandel developed her own research project, which ultimately led to an influential longitudinal study of 1,325 persons.

The main subject of Kandel's investigations was the sequence of first-time use of various legal and illegal substances. Her research in this area found a strong resonance in scientific and political discussions, and the catchphrases "stepping-stone theory" (used since the 1930s) and "gateway hypothesis" (used since the 1980s) were associated with her name, though often misleadingly. Contrary to many others, Kandel always emphasized the difference between sequence and causation in the first-time use of different substances. These may – but need not – be coupled, a question which is investigated in further research, particularly in physiological experiments.


  • 1985 – National Institutes of Health (NIH): (NIDA): Senior Scientist Research Award (K05)
  • 2002 – R. Brinkley Smithers Distinguished Scientist Award
  • 2003 – Prevention Science Award
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