When Dr. Bill Keene gave a presentation on the dangers of raw milk at a past meeting of the American Veterinary Medical Association, even the raw milk advocates on the opposing side of the panel couldn’t help but laugh and revel in the Oregon senior state epidemiologist’s dry humor. “When he opened the presentation, he said there were a lot of words people associate with raw milk,” said Amanda Rose, a raw milk proponent debating Keene at the time. “The first slide was animated, with words popping up like ‘Healthy, Nutritious,’ and other things like ‘Death.’ The final word, in tiny letters, was ‘Bullshit.'” “Yeah, I should have been offended,” Rose said, laughing, “but you couldn’t be mad when he was so funny.” Keene, 56, who fell ill with acute pancreatitis and passed away suddenly on Sunday afternoon, was the epidemiologist who always called things how he saw them and regularly bucked tradition, according to colleagues and admirers. He was the epidemiologist who took environmental samples of restroom diaper-changing tables, personally visited outbreak victims’ homes to collect suspect food, and earned a national reputation for digging deep into investigations and pioneering unconventional methods. “He was always like a pit bull, turning over every stone, finding a way to make the available resources work,” said Michele Jay-Russell, program manager for the Western Center for Food Safety at the University of California-Davis. Others said that Keene’s focus and the speed with which he pursued outbreak investigations likely saved countless people from debilitating illness and potential death. Keene’s work involved breakthroughs on investigations into major outbreaks, including the spinach E. coli outbreak of 2006 and the Nestlé Toll House E. coli outbreak of 2009. He was also the first scientist to describe E. coli in deer, Jay-Russell said. “There are not many in food safety that you can look at and say, ‘This person really made a difference,’ but Bill was one of those few people,” said David Acheson, CEO of the Acheson Group and former chief medical officer at departments within both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Above all, those remembering Keene on Monday spoke extensively of his commitment to public health. His work focused on the best interests of the public, said Janet Mohle-Boetani, deputy medical executive for the Public Health Unit of the California Correctional Health Care Services. Because outbreaks don’t recognize state borders, Keene would often end up working with Mohle-Boetani and public health units in California during big outbreaks. When California’s almond industry was hit especially hard with Salmonella outbreaks a decade ago, Keene traveled to the plants to help solve contamination issues with their operations. “Bill knew that getting at the cause of an outbreak rapidly was what you needed to do to protect the public, and he was very persistent,” Mohle-Boetani said. “If we had a hard investigation, we used to say, ‘We need to channel Bill Keene here.'” “He’s going to be remembered as a real pillar of food safety commitment and a real public health advocate,” said Craig Wilson, vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Costco. “That’s what set him apart – his wonderful attitude and passion for public health.” Part of what made Keene unique was his early training in anthropology, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. Keene earned his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Yale University and then spent two years studying rhesus monkeys in India and Pakistan before attending graduate school in public health and microbiology. “Epidemiologists look through the lens of statistical analysis and study design,” Osterholm said. “Bill had that training, but, as an anthropologist, he also looked at telling stories and seeing how the facts fit. Bill really brought that to the area of foodborne disease epidemiology.” Oregon and Minnesota are often cited as having two of the leading state epidemiology teams. While that might lead some to become competitive, Keene was always a great collaborator with Minnesota, Osterholm said. “That’s really a tribute to his values as much as his work,” Osterholm added. “Because of the number of lives he touched, we’re all going to be much better off in the future because of him. His impact on foodborne disease epidemiology will not stop because of his death.” That legacy of doggedly pursuing investigations and thinking outside the box has already left a mark on the world of epidemiology. “His work certainly demonstrated how innovative he was to approaching foodborne illness,” said Doug Powell, vice president of communication at IEH Labs and publisher of Barfblog. “He went his own way and often didn’t rely on traditional tools, and he was usually right. You can’t argue with that.” “He will be missed, and food safety will suffer as a consequence, but no doubt his legacy lives on through his training and insight,” Acheson said. “But there will never be another one quite like Bill.”