He was at the forefront of studies that found links between salt, diet and other risk factors and cardiovascular ailments.
Jeremiah Stamler, an indefatigable cardiovascular researcher who was at the forefront of studies that identified risk factors for heart disease and ways to prevent it, died on Wednesday at his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., on Long Island. He was 102.
His stepson Michael Beckerman confirmed the death.
Dr. Stamler’s long career also had a distinction unrelated to medicine: He faced down the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities by refusing to testify when he was subpoenaed, and he sued the committee for having no legislative purpose.
In his studies, Dr. Stamler demonstrated that eating a healthier diet, exercising, not smoking and reducing salt intake would reduce the likelihood of heart disease and strokes — advice that is commonplace now but was not widely accepted decades ago.
“I was always interested in the heart artery problem,” he said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 2019. “Why did human beings with diabetes get more heart artery disease? What’s the relation of habitual lifestyle, fat intake, saturated fat intake, cholesterol intake, salt intake with cardiovascular disease?”
Dr. Stamler undertook his research in a hospital laboratory in Chicago after World War II, where he fed chickens feed heavy in cholesterol to learn what happened to their arteries; at the Chicago Board of Health, where he started a program to prevent rheumatic fever; and at the Northwestern University School of Medicine, where he founded the department of preventive medicine in 1972 and was its chairman for many years.
“Many, including myself, believe that he is largely responsible for the remarkable decline in coronary heart disease and stroke that occurred in the U.S. over the past few decades,” Dr. Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in an email. “Cardiovascular disease remains a major cause of disease and death, but it was far worse.”
Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, chairman of Northwestern’s department of preventive medicine and president of the American Heart Association, added: “He was part of a generation of scientists who put the traditional risk factors for heart disease on the map. He did the studies to show that smoking, diabetes, obesity and cholesterol drive most heart attacks.”
One of Dr. Stamler’s studies, involving more than 300,000 people, looked at the ideal levels for weight, cholesterol and physical activity to achieve cardiovascular health — a set of standards the American Heart Association adopted.
Another study, of about 10,000 people worldwide, showed that high salt intake was “one of the quantitatively important, preventable mass exposures causing the unfavorable population-wide blood pressure pattern that is a major risk factor for epidemic cardiovascular disease,” he wrote in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997.
A third study, begun about 30 years ago and still ongoing, looks at dietary factors besides salt, like animal protein, that contribute to high blood pressure.
“I remember there being criticism that he was an older man in his 70s, and could he complete the five years of the project,” Dr. Philip Greenland, a professor in Northwestern’s department of preventive medicine, said in an interview. “Then he had multiple renewals of the grant application, and at the last renewal he was 95 years old.”
Jeremiah Stamler was born on Oct. 27, 1919, in Brooklyn and grew up in West Orange, N.J. His parents — George Stamler, a dentist, and Rose (Baras) Stamler, a teacher — had immigrated from Russia.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, he earned his medical degree from Long Island College of Medicine (now SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University) in Brooklyn in 1943 and was an intern at Kings County Hospital Center, also in Brooklyn. He served in the Army in Bermuda as a radiologist before beginning his career at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, where he worked with Dr. Louis Katz, a top cardiology researcher.
“Dr. Katz told me, ‘Why the hell do you want to go into research?’” Dr. Stamler told The 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.”
In the late 1950s, Dr. Stamler joined both the Chicago Board of Health and Northwestern, as a part-time assistant professor of medicine. In 1965, when he was director of the board’s heart disease control program, he was subpoenaed to testify by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Accused of having been part of a Communist Party underground in the 1950s, he refused to testify or to take the Fifth Amendment, as many other witnesses did. Instead he gave a statement saying he was a loyal American.
He and two others — one of whom was Yolanda Hall, a nutritionist who collaborated with Dr. Stamler at the Board of Health — filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the committee was unconstitutional and had no legislative function.
“Its function was to embarrass people, to make them take the Fifth Amendment, lose their jobs and ruin their lives,” Thomas Sullivan, one of his lawyers, said in a video on the website of his firm, Jenner & Block. “They didn’t care what the answers were.”
Dr. Stamler was indicted on a charge of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions from the committee and walking out of the hearing. He was suspended by the Board of Health. He watched his legal case climb the federal court system, up to the United States Supreme Court.
Finally, in 1973, the committee — by then called the House Internal Security Committee — dropped the charges against him, and he dropped his lawsuit.
Although the committee’s constitutionality did not go to trial, Dr. Stamler told The Chicago Tribune in 1973 that the dismissal of his suit set a legal precedent “that can be relied on by any citizen whose civil liberties are threatened as ours were.”
In early 1975, the House disbanded the committee, an action that Mr. Sullivan believed was caused largely by Dr. Stamler’s case.
Dr. Stamler published nearly 700 peer-reviewed papers and wrote 22 books and monographs, including “Your Heart Has Nine Lives” (with Alton Blakeslee, 1963), and “The Hypertension Handbook” (1974).
In addition to his stepson Michael, he is survived by his son, Paul; another stepson, Jonathan Beckerman; five step-grandchildren; and two step-great-grandchildren. His first wife, Rose (Steinberg) Stamler, who was also his research partner and an associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern, died in 1998; his second wife, Gloria (Beckerman) Stamler, died last year.
Dr. Greenland, who succeeded Dr. Stamler as chairman of Northwestern’s department of preventive medicine, said that when Dr. Stamler was 85, “we had a big party for him because we thought ‘How much longer can this go on?’ and we should take advantage of him being cognitively intact and physically well. Colleagues from around the world came.
“And when he turned 90,” he added, “we had another party, and at 95 it was time for another party, and then another one when he turned 100.”
Asked in 2005 about his longevity, Dr. Stamler told The New York Times: “My father died at 84, my mother at 90. When I was a kid, a doctor convinced my father to change his diet — he was a meat and potatoes man — to lots of fruits and vegetables. I started smoking in college and quit in medical school when I became short of breath walking up two flights of stairs.”
Dr. Stamler, a follower of the Mediterranean diet, added: “I always exercised and I still do, a minimum of an hour every day. I love to eat and I believe in the pleasure of eating.”
Jeremiah Stamler, Who Found Ways to Curb Heart Disease, Dies at 102 – The New York Times