Health

Jeremiah Stamler, who found ways to curb heart disease, dies at 102

His stepson Michael Beckerman confirmed the death.

Stamler’s long career also had a distinction unrelated to
medicine: He faced down the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities
by refusing to testify when he was subpoenaed, and he sued the committee for
having no legislative purpose.

In his studies, Stamler demonstrated that eating a healthier
diet, exercising, not smoking and reducing salt intake would reduce the
likelihood of heart disease and strokes — advice that is commonplace now but
was not widely accepted decades ago.

“I was always interested in the heart artery problem,” he
said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2019. “Why did human beings
with diabetes get more heart artery disease? What’s the relation of habitual
lifestyle, fat intake, saturated fat intake, cholesterol intake, salt intake
with cardiovascular disease?

Stamler undertook his research in a hospital laboratory in
Chicago after World War II, where he fed chickens feed that was heavy in
cholesterol to learn what happened to their arteries; at the Chicago Board of
Health, where he started a programme to prevent rheumatic fever; and at the
Northwestern University School of Medicine, where he founded the department of
preventive medicine in 1972 and was its chair for many years.

“Many, including myself, believe that he is largely
responsible for the remarkable decline in coronary heart disease and stroke
that occurred in the US over the past few decades,” Dr Lawrence Appel, a
professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an email.
“Cardiovascular disease remains a major cause of disease and death, but it was
far worse.”

Dr Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of Northwestern’s department of
preventive medicine and president of the American Heart Association, added: “He
was part of a generation of scientists who put the traditional risk factors for
heart disease on the map. He did the studies to show that smoking, diabetes,
obesity and cholesterol drive most heart attacks.”

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One of Stamler’s studies, involving more than 300,000
people, looked at the ideal levels for weight, cholesterol and physical
activity to achieve cardiovascular health — a set of standards the American
Heart Association adopted.

Another study, of about 10,000 people worldwide, showed that
high salt intake was “one of the quantitatively important, preventable mass
exposures causing the unfavourable population-wide blood pressure pattern that
is a major risk factor for epidemic cardiovascular disease,” he wrote in The
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997.

A third study, begun about 30 years ago and still ongoing,
looks at dietary factors besides salt, such as animal protein, that contribute
to high blood pressure.

“I remember there being criticism that he was an older man
in his 70s, and could he complete the five years of the project,” Dr Philip
Greenland, a professor in Northwestern’s department of preventive medicine,
said in an interview. “Then he had multiple renewals of the grant application,
and at the last renewal he was 95 years old.”

Jeremiah Stamler was born Oct 27, 1919, in Brooklyn and grew
up in West Orange, New Jersey. His parents — George Stamler, a dentist, and
Rose (Baras) Stamler, a teacher — had immigrated from Russia.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Columbia
University, he earned his medical degree from Long Island College of Medicine
(now SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University) in Brooklyn in 1943 and was an
intern at Kings County Hospital Center, also in Brooklyn. He served in the Army
in Bermuda as a radiologist before beginning his career at Michael Reese
Hospital in Chicago, where he worked with Dr Louis Katz, a top cardiology
researcher.

“Dr Katz told me, ‘Why the hell do you want to go into
research?’” Stamler told the Tribune. “‘You never win. When you first discover
something, people will say, “I don’t believe it.” Then you do more research and
verify it and they’ll say, “Yes, but. …” Then you do more research, verify it
further, and they’ll say, “I knew it all the time.”’ And he was right.”

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In the late 1950s, Stamler joined both the Chicago Board of
Health and Northwestern, as a part-time assistant professor of medicine. In
1965, when he was director of the board’s heart disease control programme, he
was subpoenaed to testify by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Accused of having been part of a Communist Party underground in the 1950s, he
refused to testify or to take the Fifth Amendment, as many other witnesses did.
Instead he gave a statement saying he was a loyal American.

He and two others — one of whom was Yolanda Hall, a
nutritionist who collaborated with Stamler at the board of health — filed a
lawsuit on the grounds that the committee was unconstitutional and had no
legislative function.

“Its function was to embarrass people, to make them take the
Fifth Amendment, lose their jobs and ruin their lives,” Thomas Sullivan, one of
his lawyers, said in a video on the website of his firm, Jenner & Block.
“They didn’t care what the answers were.”

Stamler was indicted on a charge of contempt of Congress for
refusing to answer questions from the committee and walking out of the hearing.
He was suspended by the board of health. He watched his legal case climb the
federal court system, up to the US Supreme Court.

Finally, in 1973, the committee — by then called the House
Internal Security Committee — dropped the charges against him, and he dropped
his lawsuit.

Although the committee’s constitutionality did not go to
trial, Stamler told the Tribune in 1973 that the dismissal of his suit set a
legal precedent “that can be relied on by any citizen whose civil liberties are
threatened as ours were.”

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In early 1975, the House disbanded the committee, an action
that Sullivan believed was caused largely by Stamler’s case.

Stamler published nearly 700 peer-reviewed papers and wrote
22 books and monographs, including “Your Heart Has Nine Lives” (with Alton
Blakeslee, 1963), and “The Hypertension Handbook” (1974).

In addition to his stepson Michael, he is survived by his
son, Paul; another stepson, Jonathan Beckerman; five stepgrandchildren; and two
stepgreat-grandchildren. His first wife, Rose (Steinberg) Stamler, who was also
his research partner and an associate professor of preventive medicine at
Northwestern, died in 1998; his second wife, Gloria (Beckerman) Stamler, died
last year.

Greenland, who succeeded Stamler as chair of Northwestern’s
department of preventive medicine, said that when Stamler was 85, “we had a big
party for him because we thought ‘How much longer can this go on?’ and we
should take advantage of him being cognitively intact and physically well.
Colleagues from around the world came.

“And when he turned 90,” he added, “we had another party,
and at 95 it was time for another party, and then another one when he turned
100.”

Asked in 2005 about his longevity, Stamler told The New York
Times: “My father died at 84, my mother at 90. When I was a kid, a doctor
convinced my father to change his diet — he was a meat-and-potatoes man — to
lots of fruits and vegetables. I started smoking in college and quit in medical
school when I became short of breath walking up two flights of stairs.”

Stamler, a follower of the Mediterranean diet, added: “I
always exercised and I still do, a minimum of an hour every day. I love to eat
and I believe in the pleasure of eating.”

 

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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