Ancel Keys

Ancel Keys

University of Minnesota Obituary Ancel Keys A public-health scientist who established the link between cholesterol and heart disease, created K rati...

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University of Minnesota


Ancel Keys A public-health scientist who established the link between cholesterol and heart disease, created K rations for the US military, and studied starvation. Born in Colorado Springs, CO, USA, on Jan 26, 1904, he died aged 100, on Nov 20, 2004, in Minneapolis, MN, USA. Ancel Keys’ interest in science was piqued early. His family, who had moved to California to follow his uncle Lon Chaney, the silent film star, held a party at their home in Berkeley for Keys’ 8th birthday. But Keys, “apparently got bored and took his chemistry set out into the back hall, and decided he was going to chloroform a fly”, his daughter Carrie D’Andrea recalled in a 2001 video made by the University of Minnesota to commemorate his career. “My grandmother arrived just in time to see him go flop down. He had chloroformed himself.” After adventures shovelling bat guano, being married and divorced, working on a China-bound oil ship, and, less adventurously, working at Woolworth’s, Keys earned an MSc in zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He followed this with a doctorate in oceanography and biology at the Scripps Institute, La Jolla, California, in 1930, and later a doctorate in physiology at Kings’ College, Cambridge, UK. One of Keys’ first major achievements was the K ration, used by the US military to feed thousands of soldiers during World War II. In the 1930s, Keys was involved in studies of nutrition and energy, as well the effects of high altitude, all of which made use of new techniques in quantitative biology. In 1937, he joined the University of Minnesota, and in 1939, the US War Department asked him to create a food ration that could be easily carried by parachute troops. The trick was to get the maximum calorie density into a small package; this he did, and the K ration was born. That same year, he married Margaret Haney, a biochemist who would work closely with him in his research. 2174

It was partly the success of the K ration—and its misuse, Keys maintained, since it was designed to be used only for soldiers in danger of starvation—that got him interested in starvation research. “He began to see that starvation and refeeding was going to be a massive problem in Europe and around the world”, University of Minnesota colleague Henry Blackburn said. Keys found 36 conscientious objectors to the war, who came to Minnesota and lived there for a year while they were fed low-calorie diets and then re-fed normal ones. Keys measured everything from mental function to serum chemistries. The result was the now-classic The Biology of Human Starvation, first published in 1950. Keys became interested in cardiovascular research and founded the Seven Countries Study to refute early scepticism about links between heart disease, cholesterol, and diet. It became the basis of Keys’ “demonstration that the fat types eaten as food affected cholesterol in the blood and predicted death from cardiovascular disease”, said another University of Minnesota colleague, Russell Luepker. “This is summarised as the ‘Keys’ Formula’.” Mario Mancini of the University of Naples, Italy, met Keys when he came to Italy in 1954 at the start of the Seven Countries Study to investigate claims that heart disease was rare in the south of the country. Visiting hospital wards, Keys was surprised to find no mention of coronary disease in medical charts. At the end of the first pilot study in the general population in 1957, “it was clear that [the participants’] serum cholesterol was less than 180, blood pressure was normal, and coronary disease was non-existent”, Mancini told The Lancet. Southern Italy became a special place for Keys, who bought land there with the aim of creating a village of scientists. He divided the land into lots, which he gave to cardiovascular research scientists. He called it Minnelea—a combination of Elea, part of the mythical trip taken by Ulysses, and Minnesota. At first, Keys was criticised for his views by the food industry and even by the American Medical Association, but his research was eventually well accepted. In 1961, he graced the cover of Time magazine, and Eat Well and Stay Well, the 1960 cookbook he wrote with his wife, was a best-seller. The book, and other writings based on the Seven Countries Study, was credited with popularising the Mediterranean diet in which meat, fish, and dairy products were used as accompaniments to fruit, vegetables, pasta, bread, and olive oil, rather than the other way around. Keys also organised the International Society of Cardiology. “He opened doors to all his younger colleagues, and that was it”, Blackburn said. “He didn’t hold your hand. He was tough, he was blunt.” Keys is survived by Margaret, Carrie, and his son Henry. Another daughter, Martha, was murdered while on holiday in Jamaica in 1991.

Ivan Oransky [email protected] Vol 364 December 18/25, 2004