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Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, Brooklyn-born ‘father of preventive cardiology,’ dies at 102

One of the first to stress diet, healthy lifestyle

February 1, 2022 Deborah Lynn Blumberg, American Heart Association via AP
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Dr. Jeremiah Stamler, a trailblazing cardiologist who was born in Brooklyn and later graduated from the Long Island College Hospital School of Medicine (which evolved into SUNY Downstate Medical School) in the borough, died last week at age 102 at his home in Sag Harbor.

Stamler was one of the first to establish the critical connection between healthy lifestyle and heart health, and he continued his work well beyond his 100th birthday. He was known as “the father of preventive cardiology.”

In the 1970s, Stamler put the cardiovascular risk factors of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, a high-fat diet and smoking on the map. His findings were considered controversial and were met with opposition, but he stuck by his research.

Colleagues credit his work as a major force behind the significant decline in heart disease death rates since the 1960s.

“It is no exaggeration to say that few people in history have had as great an impact on human health,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association. “Jerry was a giant intellect and led in defining new prevention concepts right up until his last days. He was always innovating, and he was a kind and gentle soul who believed in people.”

Stamler was the founding chair of the preventive medicine department at Northwestern University, where he was still working on cutting-edge research at the time of his death. He trained and mentored hundreds of health professionals around the world. He authored and co-authored more than 2,000 peer-reviewed manuscripts, studies and books that have shaped U.S. public policy for decades.

Stamler was a major proponent of a Mediterranean-type diet – which is rich in fruit, vegetables, olive oil and fish and low in sugar, salt and saturated fat – and credited his approach to eating for his good health.

“He lived exactly what he preached, and it worked out very well for him,” said Lloyd-Jones. “He took his science very seriously, but he also had a wonderful sense of fun. He would say, ‘If it isn’t fun, it isn’t epidemiology.'”

Dr. Jeremiah Stamler went to medical school at the now-gone Long Island College Hospital School of Medicine on the old LICH campus in Cobble Hill. The Polhemus Building, seen here and now a condo, is one of the few surviving LICH structures from that era. Eagle file photo by Lore Croghan

Stamler was the son of Russian immigrants. He was born in Brooklyn in 1919 and grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. His exposure to healthy eating decisions came very early. Stamler had said his father turned his nose at white bread after arriving in the U.S., instead feeding his family a diet of hearty ryes and whole grains.

He attended Columbia University, then earned his medical degree from LICH in 1943.  He entered the Army after medical school and served as a radiologist in Bermuda as World War II wound down.

He then moved to Chicago with his first wife, Rose, and took a job in a lab working on cardiovascular issues with pioneering cardiology researcher Louis Katz.

Stamler explored the interactions of diet, hormones, blood pressure and lipids in vascular disease. His research focused on the tiny molecules our bodies make based on diet, environment and genes, and how those molecules can lead to health problems. 

Ultimately, his research yielded findings now taken for granted: High blood pressure and high cholesterol are both linked to cardiovascular disease.

In 1958, Stamler joined Northwestern University’s department of medicine as an assistant professor. He also took a position in Richard J. Daley’s Public Health Department, bringing his expertise to city government. 

He created a Heart Disease Control Program, worked on rheumatic fever prevention in kids, and encouraged Chicagoans to broil and roast their food instead of fry, while suggesting they eat more vegetables, fruit and seafood. He held fast to his convictions despite pushback from heavyweights such as the American Meat Institute.

In 1965, Stamler came head-to-head with Congress when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was organized to out suspected Communist sympathizers.

While most who were called either complied or pleaded the Fifth Amendment, often seeing their careers destroyed either way, Stamler found a third option. He refused to answer the committee’s questions and filed suit against the committee.

After his wife Rose died in 1998, Stamler married his childhood sweetheart, Gloria.

He maintained that love is critical to physical health even though “it’s almost impossible to research,” he said in 2019. The couple split their time between New York, a home in Italy and Chicago.

In a message board to honor his memory, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Tom Frieden wrote: “Jerry’s spark, dignity, brilliance, hard work, and commitment have saved many lives, and continue to inspire and inform the world.”

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