Alan Margolis, global advocate of family planning, dies at 90

Courtesy of Sadja Greenwood
Alan Margolis loved riding through the seashore with his apaloosa named Dusty.  

Alan Margolis, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor who championed female reproductive rights, advocated for family planning overseas and explored the seashore trails atop his black appaloosa Dusty, died peacefully in his Bolinas home on June 8. He was 90 years old.

After purchasing his home in 1980 with his partner Sadja Greenwood, Alan integrated himself into the West Marin community, where he diversified his interests. He served on the boards of Green Gulch Zen Center, Audubon Canyon Ranch and the Coastal Health Alliance, and helped establish the community health clinic in Bolinas. An artist, Alan delved into glasswork and, in April, co-produced an art show of his abstract paintings with Kale Likover at the Stinson Beach Library. Family and friends remember his infectious laugh, his ability to actively listen and his compassion toward others.

“He was a real example of the best of humankind,” Roy Jacobstein, a longtime friend and colleague, said. “In fact, I thought of him as kind of the living rebuttal to Donald Trump. Instead of being egotistical, he was ego free. Instead of being self-centered, he was orientated to other people and was kind instead of mean. He was the shining example of how to be a better person.”

Born on Dec. 28, 1926 in New York City, Alan was the only child of Max, a lawyer, and Claire, a hat maker for Saks 5th Avenue. His father moved to San Francisco to start a law practice when Alan was a toddler, so Alan was initially raised by his mother and aunts, Ethel and Emily, all working women in Manhattan. 

“He always said to me that being primarily raised by women had a huge impact on him,” his daughter Sarah Pearce said. 

Alan and his mother relocated to San Francisco in 1933 by way of ship through the Panama Canal, and the family settled in an apartment near Pacific Heights. Ms. Pearce said her father was teased as a child for being overweight and this led to a lifelong dedication to fitness.

“He never gained weight and he was a fitness enthusiast,” she said. “I think those years being a chubby guy really had an impact on him.”

Alan would return to the East Coast over summers to visit his aunts and attend camp in Vermont, instilling an early interest in the outdoors. At Lowell High School, he was on the swim team. After graduating in 1943, Alan attended the University of California, Berkeley, to become a doctor. 

He was able to expedite his studies during World War II, graduating in five years, at age 22 in 1948. During college, he had met a nursing student named Barbara Murphy and the couple eventually wed. They had two daughters, Susan and Sarah. 

After Alan completed his residency at San Francisco General and the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, he went into the army, where he served as a doctor in Germany for two years. Upon his return to the States in 1955, he opened his first obstetrics and gynecology practice in San Francisco. But he soon grew weary of the burden of a private practice.

“He felt bogged down and wasn’t learning anything new,” Ms. Pearce said. “He accepted an offer to join the faculty at U.C.S.F. and he was very glad to do that. He had ideas and wanted to do research. His interest in women’s health was starting to grow.”

Alan, his wife and two daughters lived in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during the 1960s. Ms. Pearce said Alan was heavily impacted by the death of a young teenager in an emergency room where he was working due to a botched abortion. He decided to focus his attention on reproductive rights. 

Alan had met Ms. Greenwood a decade earlier when both were working at San Francisco General. She had become the director of Planned Parenthood’s teenage clinic, and the two teamed up in efforts to legalize abortion in 1967, frequenting Sacramento to support the Therapeutic Abortion Act. 

Alan popularized the use of the Karman cannula, a surgical instrument that made abortions safer, and created a training film that taught doctors medical techniques for safe abortions in 1973 along with Ms. Greenwood. 

“He was an extremely good surgeon,” Ms. Greenwood said. “He was so smooth and fast, and would quickly stop bleeders. And he was so nice to everybody in the room, including medical students. He didn’t bark at them or make them feel ashamed if they didn’t know something. He was a real master in the operating room.”

Alan’s marriage to Ms. Murphy ended in 1970, and he began traveling overseas to promote family planning. Working with the reproductive health organization Pathfinder International, he traveled to places such as Equator, Chile, The Republic of Congo, Bangladesh and Russia, taking photographs of his journeys and producing collages of the pictures for his family. 

It was during this time that he began a relationship with Ms. Greenwood that would last until his death.

Ms. Pearce said Ms. Greenwood encouraged Alan to pursue art at a time when doctors were expected to be only professionals.

“There was a social stigma about being a professional and doctors couldn’t do art—they had to be a doctor,” she said. “Doing something like art and photography was a nice sideline, but not something you devoted time to. Sadja encouraged him—she’s the quintessential woman of the 1960s—and he was ripe for that.”

Alan retired from the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at U.C.S.F. in the late 1980s and immediately began working for the Agency for International Development, where he continued to educate nurses and doctors about family planning. 

He met Roy Jacobstein at the agency while the two were completing an evaluation in Indonesia in the early 1990s. Mr. Jacobstein lived on the East Coast, but they visited each other annually and remained lifelong friends. 

Mr. Jacobstein recalled a surprising moment when he was with his son at the San Francisco Airport.

“I came to visit Alan and there was a photography exhibit in SFO on civil rights pioneers,” he said. “Alan and Sadja both had their picture in there as reproductive rights champions. I knew both of them were beloved figures in Bay Area women’s community. They were a great model of a couple mutually supporting each other.”

Alan and Ms. Greenwood had purchased a home in Bolinas in 1980 but didn’t fully relocate until 1996. In Bolinas, Ms. Pearce said her father could relax. No longer under the pressures of a professional career, he began calling himself a “country guy.” He owned a Bernese mountain dog called Ladi and purchased a horse he named Dusty. He kept the appaloosa at Vanishing Point Ranch and would often ride with the ranch’s owner, Sally Peacock.

“He called Bear Valley ‘Broadway,’” Ms. Peacock said. “And when we got to the coast, he’d always comment about the ‘Great Pacific.’ He was super healthy and on rides he would make these little Tofurky sandwiches. He was such a good sport; he was in the over 30s pony club shows. He and Dusty had a great time together.”

Michael Mery of Point Reyes Station encouraged Alan to join him on the board of the Coastal Health Alliance. The two became friends, traveling to Utah for a rafting trip and making a spontaneous trip to Los Angeles for a day to see an exhibit on Russian Orthodox icons at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“Loving Alan was very easy to do,” Mr. Mery said. “He was a rather irresistible character and knew how to be a good friend. He wasn’t worried about success or failure, but was interested in process. One way to think of Alan was he was ‘up for it.’ That was his approach to life.”

In his final years, Alan made glasswork, giving detailed dinner plates as gifts to friends. He took art lessons with Kale Likover and he and Ms. Pearce would often meet for breakfast at the Parkside Café.

“He always used to say, ‘I truly believe in reinventing myself every five years,’ and he really did,” Ms. Pearce said. “I think that might be the key to longevity: to pick up a new thing. And that’s pretty good advice from someone who called himself ‘a pretty simple country boy.’”


Alan is survived by his partner of 45 years, Sadja Greenwood; his daughter Sarah and his grandchildren Sonny and Asia. He is predeceased by his daughter Susan.