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Archived Comments for: Ancel Keys: a tribute

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  1. A few thoughts about Professor Ancel Keys

    stephen phinney, UC Davis (emeritus)

    28 February 2005

    Although I was saddened by the news of Ancel Keys' passing last fall, I took the opportunity to reflect upon his long and productive life.

    My most memorable encounter with Dr. Keys was in the mid-1980's, about the time that the Lipid Research Clinic Coronary Prevention Trial had demonstrated that using cholestyramine to reduce cholesterol significantly reduced coronary mortality. Of course Dr. Keys had set this study in motion two decades earlier when he undertook his Seven Countries Study, which laid the foundation for the diet, cholesterol and heart disease hypothesis. Meeting Dr. Keys by chance in a hallway at the University of Minnesota, he took the opportunity to show me a manuscript that examined long-term mortality risk relative to baseline HDL cholesterol in a cohort of Minnesota businessmen. In it, the manuscript reported that although their HDL was predictive of coronary mortality, the baseline HDL cholesterol did not correlate with overall mortality. Dr. Keys was fuming, because this manuscrit had been rejected by the major medical journals to which he had submitted it. Having set the cholesterol lowering juggernaut in motion, the nutrition establishment was not about to let him sully the picture by demonstrating that it was not the only factor that determined important outcomes such as longevity. In his early 80's, Dr Keys was still way out ahead of the consensus.

    While Dr. Van Itallie's piece touches upon some of Dr. Keys' many accomplishments, I think that it misses the salient fact that Dr. Keys was the preeminent thought leader in the area of nutrition in the 20th Century. He did much more than lead the remarkable team that generated The Biology of Human Starvation. From the US Army's K-ration of WWII (where the "K" stood for "Keys", who single-handedly invented it in 1939) to the multi-factorial causation of coronary disease, Ancel Keys was constantly opening up new and important territory. As is characteristic of a true thought leader, Dr. Keys was not content to sit and wait the 10-20 years for the consensus to catch up on any one of his advances, but was constantly moving forward in eager exploration.

    Dr Keys was restless and brilliant, and a true leader. He will be missed.

    Competing interests