At 99, Stamler still teaches, advises colleagues and leads research at Northwestern, where he joined the faculty in the early 1960s. His decades-long career has focused on how diet and environment affect heart health and blood pressure — even when such ideas were roundly dismissed by the scientific community.
“He is a legend,” said Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, the chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “I mean, he is just revered by everybody. … His research is incredibly complex, but he still understands it all at the age of 99.”
In a phone interview, Stamler said he has kept working all these years because the work “just continued to be interesting.” He dismissed as foolish the suggestion that spearheading vital scientific research as a nonagenarian could be difficult.
“Why should it be hard?” he said, with a laugh. “Some people think you gotta be crazy, at my age. But if it’s fun, and you’re productive, and it’s useful for mankind — why not?”
Stamler is a founding father of preventive cardiology, the field of study exploring how to reduce risk factors for heart disease. Stamler and colleagues discovered that measures such as eating healthier and not smoking will significantly reduce a person’s chances of a heart attack.
While that is common knowledge today, it was radical and controversial decades ago when he and his colleagues found the connection between lifestyle and heart health.
“Dr. Stamler was already preaching these things in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” said Philip Greenland, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern. “He wrote the first textbook on preventive cardiology.”
In fact, Stamler invented the term, Greenland said.
In part due to Stamler’s findings, death rates from heart disease in the United States declined by roughly 70 percent between the 1960s and 2010, Lloyd-Jones said. He added that Stamler is “one of the country’s unsung heroes.”
“It doesn’t get the headlines — people don’t know about the heart attack they didn’t have,” Lloyd-Jones said. “But there are so many people walking around today who didn’t have that heart attack and die because of the really groundbreaking work Dr. Stamler led.”
To honor that legacy, Lloyd-Jones’s department — which Stamler founded almost 50 years ago — will convene a science symposium in the professor’s honor on the Friday before his birthday, Oct. 27. Scientists from across the nation will gather to speak on Stamler’s work, its impact and the future of cardiovascular prevention research.
In the evening, the department plans to host a dinner featuring “more personal tributes” to Stamler, Lloyd-Jones said. Stamler said he’s excited for the day, and he has insisted on a “heart-healthy menu” — one packed with lean protein, low-sodium foods and fruits and vegetables, according to Lloyd-Jones.
In the meantime, Stamler is busy working in the field that first caught his eye when he was a boy in western New Jersey. Around age 8, Stamler decided he would attend medical school and become a researcher.
He did exactly that. After attending Columbia University, Stamler graduated from Long Island College Hospital Medical Center, then served as a U.S. Army radiologist in World War II. After several months stationed at a hospital in Bermuda, Stamler was honorably discharged around 1946. He promptly returned to research, taking a job in a Chicago lab working on cardiovascular issues.
“I decided I would try my hand in research for a year and see whether my interest continued, and whether I could be minimally productive,” Stamler said.
The answer to both questions was yes. In 1958, Stamler joined the Chicago Board of Health to launch its first Heart Disease Control Program. In 1972, he became the founding chair of Northwestern’s Department of Preventive Medicine — where he’s been ever since.
By the time Stamler turned 40, his innovative work studying the connections between lifestyle, diet and heart health had earned him worldwide fame in the field of cardiovascular medicine, according to Greenland. Among Stamler’s lasting findings were that the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes fish, olive oil and vegetables — significantly reduced heart disease-related deaths.
Stamler stuck by his research even when it proved less popular.
His resolve was tested in 1997, when he published a seminal paper, the Intersalt study, that found a connection between increased sodium intake and high blood pressure. The research generated swift backlash and controversy, including among members of the salt trade industry, who had long argued that sodium and blood pressure were unrelated.
“Many other people would have dropped it or given up, because the fight was a pretty vigorous fight,” Greenland said. “But not Dr. Stamler.”
The Intersalt study “became the most important paper ever published on blood pressure and sodium,” Greenland said, with its conclusions eventually informing instructions published by the American Heart Association.
Stamler also broke ground in an arena far from research: politics. He was an avid supporter of the civil rights movement and refused in the 1960s to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated people suspected of having Communist ties. Stamler later filed a lawsuit in protest of the committee, which helped spur Congress to disband the panel.
“He was jeopardizing his career,” Lloyd-Jones said. “But it’s a measure of the man; he is unshakable and courageous.”
Stamler works part time now and is technically emeritus, but he is still a vital faculty member at Northwestern, Lloyd-Jones said. First, there’s his research. Stamler’s team of about 20 people is working on a project aimed at advancing the understanding of how diet, environment and DNA help determine a person’s blood pressure, according to Lloyd-Jones.
One measure of his work’s significance is its federal support: Stamler beat out stiff competition to win NIH funding for the project about three years ago. The program that provides the grant accepts just 16 percent of applicants, Lloyd-Jones said.
In addition to his own work, Stamler is also a prolific reviewer of his peers’ writing — as long as they are willing to send him papers by fax and decipher his “very extensive and very insightful” handwritten comments, Lloyd-Jones said.
Linda Van Horn, a Northwestern professor who has worked with Stamler since 1976, said Stamler is a demanding perfectionist and generous mentor who has shaped the careers of thousands of young scientists, including her own.
“I regard him as the one and only genius I’ve ever worked with,” she said.
Stamler said he is now beginning to think about retirement. It would be nice to spend more time with his wife, childhood sweetheart Gloria Beckerman, and to catch up on his reading. (He loves to devour biographies.)
“I’m only 99 years old,” Stamler said. “I’ve got time.”