Cheri Pies, a professor of public health who broke barriers with her landmark 1985 book, “Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians,” a bible of the “gayby boom” of the 1980s and beyond, died on July 4 at her home in Berkeley, Calif. She was 73.
The cause was cancer, said her wife, Melina Linder.
Later in life, Dr. Pies (her first name was pronounced “Sherry”) became a pioneering researcher and professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health, investigating the effects of economic and racial inequality in matters like infant mortality and health over generations.
But she made her name decades before her turn toward academia with her groundbreaking book. That journey began in the 1970s, when Dr. Pies was working as a health educator for Planned Parenthood, counseling straight women considering motherhood.
Her focus began to shift in 1978, after her female partner adopted a daughter. At that time, the concept of openly gay parents was still mostly unheard-of in the culture at large.
Just that year, New York became the first state to say it would not reject applications for adoption solely on the basis of homosexuality. A year later, a gay couple in California broke barriers as the first known to jointly adopt a child.
Dr. Pies was struck by the lack of support available to same-sex parents, as well as the lack of basic information about the unique challenges they face. She began running workshops in her home in Oakland, Calif., advertising them with fliers in women’s bookshops and other places where lesbians gathered.
By the early 1980s, word of her work had spread beyond the Bay Area, and she was bombarded with letters and phone calls from lesbians around the country. In response, Dr. Pies compiled her teachings and experiences into a book. “Considering Parenthood: A Workbook for Lesbians,” published by the lesbian feminist press Spinsters Ink, provided practical advice on a wide range of topics, including the use of sperm donors, legal issues surrounding adoption, and ways to build a support network.
The book, which appeared 30 years before same-sex marriage was legalized nationally, opened the floodgates for countless other books about L.G.B.T.Q. parenthood.
“She was absolutely a pioneer, and those of us who came later built on her work,” G. Dorsey Green, a psychologist and author of “The Lesbian Parenting Book” (with D. Merilee Clunis, 2003), was quoted as saying in an obituary about Dr. Pies on Mombian, a website for lesbian parents. “I would recommend her book to clients. That was when lesbian couples were just starting to think about having children as out lesbians. Cheri started that conversation.”
Dr. Pies, who earned a master’s degree in social work from Boston University in 1976, would eventually turn to academia, receiving another master’s degree, in maternal and child health, from Berkeley in 1985 and a doctorate in health education there in 1993.
She was serving as the director of family, maternal and child health programs for Contra Costa County, which borders Berkeley and Oakland, when she heard a lecture in 2003 by Dr. Michael C. Lu, who would go on to become the dean of the Berkeley School of Public Health.
Dr. Lu spoke about a concept called life course theory, which centers on the idea that the social and economic conditions at each stage in life, starting with infancy, can have powerful, lasting effects over generations. “What surrounds us shapes us,” Dr. Pies explained in a 2014 lecture at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Some people would say your ZIP code is more important than your genetic code.”
At Berkeley, Dr. Pies would eventually collaborate with Dr. Lu and others to create the Best Babies Zone initiative, a groundbreaking program that would study — and, ideally, improve — health conditions in economically challenged neighborhoods around the country.
In 2012, she became the program’s principal investigator, after Dr. Lu took a post in the Obama administration. The initiative included home health visits and work with community leaders to create parent-child play groups, improve park safety and enhance job-skills training. It began in Oakland, New Orleans and Cincinnati and had spread to six other cities by 2017, the year Dr. Pies retired from Berkeley. The program is still active today.
“There are people doing large-scale policy work around structural racism, trying to change policy and practice,” Dr. Pies said in an interview published on the Berkeley School of Public Health website in April. “Best Babies Zone is at the other end of the spectrum, going small-scale to make change for people who can’t wait for policy change to happen.”
The high incidence of low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome in such communities was a focus of the program. “Babies are the canary in the mine,” Dr. Pies said in her University of Alabama speech. “If babies aren’t born healthy, you know that something isn’t right in the community.”
Cheramy Anne Pies was born on Nov. 26, 1949, in Los Angeles, the second of three daughters of Morris Pies, a physician, and Doris (Naboshek) Pies, a nurse. (She later changed her name to Cheri.)
Growing up in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley, the outgoing, ebullient Cheri was a fan of movies, particularly musicals like “My Fair Lady,” and got an early taste of the medical profession working as a receptionist in her father’s office.
After graduating from nearby Birmingham High School, she enrolled at Berkeley in 1967, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in social science in 1971.
Berkeley at the time was a cauldron of Vietnam War-era political passions, after the Free Speech Movement protests that rocked the campus starting in 1964. “Even though I was not actively engaged in it, I was certainly exposed to the politics of it,” she later said of the movement.
In addition to her wife, Dr. Pies is survived by her sisters, Lois Goldberg and Stacy Pies.
She would eventually channel Berkeley’s 1960s spirit of activism as an author and professor, working to improve the lives of openly lesbian parents of the 1980s and beyond — whose numbers swelled so quickly that by 1996, Newsweek magazine would report that an estimated six million to 14 million children in the United States had at least one gay parent.
“Adoption agencies report more and more inquiries from prospective parents — especially men — who identify themselves as gay,” the article read, “and sperm banks say they’re in the midst of what some call a ‘gayby boom’ propelled by lesbians.”
Many of that generation would acknowledge their debt to Dr. Pies for the rest of her life, Ms. Linder said in a phone interview: “Cheri and I could be anywhere in the world — on a hike in New Zealand or just walking in the Berkeley Hills — and people would see her and stop to thank her, saying how Ben or Alice or whoever would not be in their life were it not for Cheri.”