Jeremiah Stamler’s scientific work is so cutting-edge, it recently earned him roughly half a million dollars in funding from the National Institutes of Health.
Stamler, who turns 100 this month, teaches and leads research at Northwestern University, where he joined in the early 1960s. His career has focused on how diet and environment affect heart health and blood pressure — even when such ideas were dismissed by the scientific community.
“He is a legend,” said Donald Lloyd-Jones, the chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “He is just revered.”
Stamler said he has kept working because it “just continued to be interesting.” He dismissed as foolish the suggestion that spearheading research as a nonagenarian could be difficult. “Why should it be hard?” he said. “If it’s fun, and you’re productive, and it’s useful for mankind — why not?”
Stamler is a founding father of preventive cardiology. While it is now common knowledge that eating healthier and not smoking will reduce the risk of a heart attack, it was radical and controversial decades ago.
“Dr. Stamler was already preaching these things in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” said Philip Greenland, a professor of preventive medicine. “He wrote the first textbook on preventive cardiology.”
In fact, Stamler invented the term, Greenland said.
In part because of Stamler’s findings, U.S. death rates from heart disease declined by roughly 70% between the 1960s and 2010, Lloyd-Jones said. He said 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,” he 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.”
Stamler was about 8 when he decided he would attend medical school and become a researcher. And he did exactly that. After attending Columbia University, he graduated from Long Island College Hospital Medical Center, then served as a U.S. Army radiologist in World War II. After being honorably discharged around 1946, he returned to research, taking a job in a Chicago lab.
“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,” he said.
The answer was yes.
By the time Stamler turned 40, his work had earned him fame in the field of cardiovascular medicine, Greenland said. Among Stamler’s lasting findings were that the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes fish, olive oil and vegetables — significantly reduced heart disease-related deaths.
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. He 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 said he is 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. But not yet.
“I’m only 99 years old,” Stamler said. “I’ve got time.”