Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, ‘Father of Preventive Cardiology,’ dead at 102
The Northwestern University professor was ‘essentially the world expert on the causes and potential prevention of heart disease.’
Back when America had only 48 states, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler was issuing warnings about links between a fatty diet and heart disease.
At 99, he received a research grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Stamler, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, died Wednesday at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, according to his colleague Dr. Philip Greenland. He was 102 and was known worldwide as the “Father of Preventive Cardiology.”
A “legend among legends,” tweeted Dr. Koushik Reddy, a cardiologist with the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa.
A 2019 story about him in the Minneapolis Star Tribune — originally printed in the Washington Post — ran under the headline: “You may not know him, but he may have saved your life.”
“He became essentially the world expert on the causes and potential prevention of heart disease,” Greenland said. “We were very lucky to have him in Chicago.”
In the post-war era, “His contention was that coronary disease was a mass epidemic, and the way to treat mass epidemics was at the population level, not the individual level,” Greenland said. “He committed himself to what would now be called public health.”
As early as 1954, Dr. Stamler said that rich and fatty foods in the American diet were contributing to hardening of the arteries — atherosclerosis.
From about 1966 to 1972, Greenland said, he worked on a research project funded by what was then known as the Chicago Heart Association to screen 40,000 people for cardiac health.
Dr. Stamler went on to help spread the word about a new concept of risk factors’ that could be linked to heart attacks. These included smoking, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol.
He also did a study that linked salt to high blood pressure.
At times, he got pushback from the food industry, the public and other scientists.
But he was a “paradigm shifter,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones — chair of the preventive medicine department at Northwestern — in a university interview when Dr. Stamler turned 100.
Lloyd-Jones noted in 2019 that, “Jerry started this department back in 1972. Here we are 47 years later, and it’s remarkable how much his legacy endures. Just in the last year, he and his team, with Jerry leading the way, published what I think will be viewed as the definitive paper on dietary factors and blood pressure.’’
Young Jeremiah decided to become a doctor at 8, according to an article in the Washington Post at the time of his centennial birthday. Born in Brooklyn, he received a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University and a medical degree from State University of New York. Once he completed an internship at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn in 1944, he entered the U.S. Army, Northwestern said. The Post article said he served as a radiologist.
After arriving in Chicago, he did landmark research with Dr. Louis Katz of Michael Reese Hospital, Greenland said: “They proved in animals that you could introduce atherosclerosis by changing the diet of hens.”
Working for the Chicago health department in the 1950s, Dr. Stamler created a program for the prevention and recognition of rheumatic fever.
Later, Dr. Stamler worked on a massive study funded by the National Institutes of Health that screened 360,000 people with no risk factors for heart disease. It showed they reached “mucholder ages” than others without ever developing cardiac disease, Greenland said.
His efforts helped shift the focus of the American Heart Association to promoting cardiovascular health, as opposed to concentrating on risks and treatment,Greenland said. The association “cites 12 of Dr. Stamler’s papers as justification for this shift,” he said.
In 1965, Dr. Stamler was in the news for legal rather than medical reasons as he fought a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee was pressuring him “to identify friends who had attended Communist Party meetings,” according to Northwestern.
The law firm Jenner & Block filed suit on his behalf against the committee, saying its work was unconstitutional.
“After eight and a half years of litigation, the government agreed to drop its indictment against Dr. Stamler for contempt of Congress, and the doctor agreed to drop his civil suit against the Committee,” according to a Jenner & Block history.
Dr. Stamler’s litigation contributed to a House decision to dismantle the committee, the firm said.
He was held in such high esteem that more than $800,000 in aid had poured in from colleagues, academics and civil libertarians. “It came from all over,” Greenland said, “before social media.”
For his own health, Dr. Stamler long adhered to a Mediterranean diet.
“As the years have gone by,” he told Northwestern when he turned 100, “I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of lifestyle for health, what we eat, what we drink, how we work, how we enjoy our families, how we enjoy our holiday.”
His first wife Rose —a hypertension expert and professor emeritus of preventive medicine at Northwestern— died in 1998. Dr. Stamler later married his childhood sweetheart Gloria. She died last year. Dr. Stamler also has a son, Paul, who survives him.
He remained modest about his contributions, saying, “A scientist that selects his own greatest contribution is a foolish person. I leave it to history.”