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Birns Atkins, Stony Brook professor, champion of women's and children's rights, dies at 89

Beverly Birns Atkins worked for a decade as a professor of psychiatry at the Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, studying the personalities of newborn babies during the first 15 days of their lives.

Beverly Birns Atkins was an "academic researcher and

Beverly Birns Atkins was an "academic researcher and professor turned champion of women and children's rights," her daughter said. She died Saturday at the age of 89. Photo Credit: Susan Birns Family

Beverly Birns Atkins, a feminist and pioneer in women's and children's rights, died Saturday at a Port Jefferson hospice care facility from pneumonia and complications from post-polio syndrome. She was 89.

Birns Atkins founded Stony Brook University's Women's Studies and Child and Families Studies programs and was a prolific writer whose research chronicled the personalities of newborn babies and the cumulative effect of domestic violence.

"She had such a tremendous impact on so many lives," said her daughter, Susan Birns, 67, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts. "I don't know how you can measure the impact she had."

Birns Atkins was born Sept. 7, 1929, in Manhattan, the  younger of two children  of David Malkind, who worked in the wholesale textiles industry, and Sylvia Malkind, a union organizer for Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.

She majored in psychology at Hunter College but, after marrying her childhood sweetheart, Monroe Birns, moved to Switzerland, where he was studying to become a pathologist. Birns Atkins completed her undergraduate work at the University of Geneva, first receiving a bachelor's degree and then a master's in child development. 

Birns Atkins returned to the United States in 1952, working as a psychology intern at Jacobi Medical Center and earning a Ph.D. later from Columbia University.

The couple had two children, Susan Birns and Peter Kindfield, 61, of Idyllwild, California. Monroe Birns died in 1961 in a scuba diving accident off the coast of Rhode Island.

Birns Atkins remarried two years later to Dr. Harold Atkins, a radiologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, whom she had met on a blind date. The couple, married 52 years, had two children, Mathew Atkins, 54, of Danville, California, and Michael Atkins, 49, of Montclair, New Jersey. The family lived in Huntington before settling in  Strongs Neck.

Harold Atkins, who later became chairman of the Department of Nuclear Medicine at Stony Brook University, died in May 2015 from complications from ALS. 

Birns Atkins worked for a decade as a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, studying the personalities of newborn babies during the first 15 days of their lives. Her work found that  infants had their own innate ways of  behavior not necessarily influenced by their parents.

In 1970, she joined the staff at Stony Brook, first as a professor of psychology and founding and chairing the new Women's Studies and Child and Family Studies programs later. At the time, the university offered just a single course about women and had just three females on its faculty. 

Birns Akins also helped develop the university's day care center and hosted seminars in which female students discussed their research and read from contemporary feminist writers.

"Beverly was a wonderful teacher and friend who worked hard for economic and social justice," said Judith Wishnia of Setauket,  a former Stony Brook professor and colleague in the Women's Studies program.

In 1981, Birns Atkins spent a sabbatical year in Washington as a congressional fellow for then-Rep. Charles Rangel, a Manhattan Democrat, helping to organize a hearing on the impact of budget cuts on children's programs and services. The hearing ultimately led the Reagan administration to halt budget cuts to the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children, which provides meals to pregnant women and high-risk infants.

Birns Atkins took a second, extended sabbatical from 1984 to 1986, working as both a research fellow in family violence at Boston Children's Hospital and as a visiting scholar at Wellesley College.

During her decades-long career, she published more than 40 papers and four books, on topics ranging from child nutrition and soothing techniques for infants to mental illness and domestic violence. Birns Atkins served later as vice president of the board of directors at the Victims Information Bureau of Suffolk, a family violence and rape crisis center in Islandia.

"We all talk about wanting to change the world," said Sarah Hall Sternglanz, a Stony Brook colleague who described Birns Atkins as a mentor. "But Beverly actually did change the world, all the while staying a wonderful human being."

Family members also recalled Birns Atkins as a vocal peace activist who would  take the family on chartered bus trips to Washington to protest the Korean and Vietnam wars. 

"She was an extraordinarily kind and generous person who worked so that everyone would have a chance at a better life, both on a personal and societal level," Kindfield said. 

But Birns Atkins also faced numerous personal hurdles, from a bout with polio as a child to becoming a widow at age 32, to battling breast cancer at age 45.

Through it all, Susan Birns said her mother retained her optimism and passion for life. "She was a brilliant scholar, but also silly and playful," she said. 

 Birns Atkins is survived by her four children and their spouses; seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The family held a private burial Tuesday in Rockland County.

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