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Jeremiah Stamler, who linked lifestyle with heart health, dies at 102

The longtime Northwestern University professor was known as the father of preventive cardiology

Jeremiah Stamler, left, in an undated photograph, was known as the father of preventive cardiology. (Northwestern University)

Jeremiah Stamler, a tireless cardiovascular researcher who helped demonstrate that diet and lifestyle play a fundamental role in heart health, shaking up the medical establishment after years in which heart attacks and strokes were viewed as inevitable consequences of aging and bad genes, died Jan. 26 at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y. He was 102 and still working to obtain grants for his research team until a week before he died.

His stepson Michael Beckerman, the chairman of New York University’s music department, said Dr. Stamler had been in declining health but did not cite a specific cause.

A longtime professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Dr. Stamler was part of a small group of researchers who identified risk factors for heart disease, most notably high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking, which are now blamed for the vast majority of heart attacks and strokes. His research in the 1970s and beyond was credited with helping fuel a sharp decline in heart disease mortality rates.

“It really transformed medicine, from a reactive stance to a proactive stance, so that we could extend and improve people’s lives,” said Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, the president of the American Heart Association and chair of Northwestern’s Department of Preventive Medicine, which Dr. Stamler founded 50 years ago. Studies by Dr. Stamler and his colleagues “put new tools in the tool box,” Lloyd-Jones added in a phone interview. “He showed us that while genes can load the gun, it’s really lifestyle that pulls the trigger.”

Dr. Stamler pivoted in the second half of his career to conducting major studies on diet and blood pressure, and sometimes battled with food industry groups and other special interests that opposed his findings. He also made headlines for his legal clashes with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), refusing to testify when he was subpoenaed and suing the committee on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.

But he remained best known for his medical research, which he published across 22 books and more than 670 papers. He was credited with developing new ways to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, and became known as the father of preventive cardiology, a title that reflected his interest in preventing cardiovascular diseases rather than simply treating illness one hospital visit at a time.

For decades, doctors believed that rising cholesterol, blood pressure and body fat levels were simply part of aging. The rule of thumb for healthy systolic blood pressure, for instance, was said to be 100 plus your age. But Dr. Stamler concluded that those rising levels were neither normal nor risk-free.

“We’re accommodated to a nomadic way of life that had little salt, little fat, lots of exercise, little or no obesity,” he told the New York Times in 2005. “Most of us are not genetically adapted to current lifestyles. So our cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and uric acid levels go up.” In part as a result of his studies, normal blood pressure has been redefined, with 120/80 now cited as a benchmark for most adults.

Dr. Stamler trained in laboratory research and worked with animals early in his career, feeding cholesterol to chickens to examine the effect of diet on heart health. But he ultimately “transformed himself into a population scientist,” said his colleague Philip Greenland, a Northwestern cardiology professor and former chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. His Intersalt study, published in 1997, involved more than 10,000 test subjects and reaffirmed a connection between high salt intake and high blood pressure, spurring a change in health guidelines released by groups including the American Heart Association.

“His mantra was ‘Firm, steady pressure,’ ” said Lloyd-Jones. “If you can bring the best science to bear and answer the questions, over time the firm, steady pressure of excellent science and clear data will win the day. That’s really how he did his work. It wasn’t flashy one-off things. It was, let’s build the case and do it one study at a time.”

Jeremiah Stamler was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 27, 1919, and grew up in West Orange, N.J. His father was a dentist, his mother a schoolteacher. Both parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Dr. Stamler received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 1940 and graduated three years later from the Long Island College of Medicine (now SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University) in Brooklyn. He completed his internship at Kings County Hospital Center, also in Brooklyn, and served as an Army radiologist at the close of World War II, spending what he later described as “a lovely year in Bermuda.”

Returning to the United States, he launched his research career at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, working under Louis N. Katz, a cardiologist who later served as president of the American Heart Association.

“Dr. Katz told me, ‘Why the hell do you want to go into research?’” Dr. Stamler recalled in a 2019 interview with the Chicago 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.”

That cycle played out repeatedly, Dr. Stamler said, as he came up against trade associations including the North American Meat Institute, which disputed some of his research on diet and heart health. (Dr. Stamler never cooked with salt and was a devoted adherent to the Mediterranean diet, which includes a relatively high amount of olive oil, fruits and vegetables.) As he told it, the meat institute “had a very simple view: Why don’t you do research, write papers, publish them and shut up? We didn’t feel that was an appropriate posture for people doing research on a scientific problem of great public health importance, to do the research and then bury it.”

His interest in translating his scientific findings into policy changes led him to join the Chicago Public Health Department in the late 1950s, when he began organizing programs to prevent heart disease and rheumatic fever, among other illnesses. He was working there in 1965 when he was called before HUAC to answer questions about alleged ties to communist political groups. (According to his stepson, one of his cousins was married to Benjamin J. Davis, a leader of the American Communist Party.)

Dr. Stamler believed that his reputation would be tarnished whether he testified or took the Fifth Amendment, invoking his right against self-incrimination. Seeking a third option, he sued the committee on the grounds that it had no right to investigate his political beliefs, and he called himself a loyal American before walking out of a HUAC hearing in Chicago along with one of his colleagues, Yolanda Hall, who joined him in the lawsuit.

The duo were cited for contempt of Congress, and the case bounced through the courts for eight years before ending with a 1973 settlement in which Dr. Stamler withdrew his complaint and the government dropped its criminal contempt charges.

Two years later, Congress disbanded the committee, which was by then known as the House Committee on Internal Security. “The case was the decisive factor in ending it,” Tom Sullivan, a Jenner & Block lawyer who worked on the lawsuit, later told the Tribune.

Dr. Stamler had by then joined Northwestern’s medical school in Chicago, where in 1972 he was named the inaugural chair of the community health and preventive medicine department. He helped grow the university’s master of public health program and became a professor emeritus in 1990. In 2014, he received an academic mentorship award from the American Heart Association.

“He had the ability to energize other people to want to work with him,” said Greenland, his Northwestern colleague. “There are these lone-ranger types in science who just go in their lab and work away at a project for their whole life. Nobody knows who they are.” By contrast, Dr. Stamler “traveled all over the world meeting with people,” Greenland said, answering questions from younger researchers and offering handwritten commentary on manuscripts they sent him by fax or mail.

Trailblazing professor Jeremiah Stamler turns 100 next month. He’s still doing ‘incredibly complex’ research funded by the NIH.

Dr. Stamler collaborated for most of his career with his first wife, Rose Steinberg Stamler, who trained in sociology. After her death in 1998, he married his childhood sweetheart, Gloria Beckerman, arriving at her door with a dozen roses in hand to resume their courtship, according to his stepson. Gloria Stamler died last year at 97.

In addition to his stepson Michael, survivors include a son from his first marriage, Paul; another stepson, Jonathan Beckerman; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Stamler’s recent work included an ongoing study investigating the link between blood pressure and the human metabolome, the stream of small molecules that circulate through the bloodstream as a result of cellular processes. He often said that he had no interest in retiring, at least so long as his health permitted and important questions remained unanswered.

“When he was about 98, he said to me, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can go on, maybe this is it,’” his stepson said. “And the next time I saw him, he goes, ‘I got a grant renewal! I’m living to 102!’”