Stamler’s research changed a medical establishment in which heart attacks and strokes were long viewed as inevitable consequences of aging and bad genes, and helped fuel a sharp decline in heart disease mortality rates.
“It really transformed medicine, from a reactive stance to a proactive stance, so that we could extend and improve people’s lives,” Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, president of the American Heart Association and chair of Northwestern’s Department of Preventive Medicine, which Stamler founded 50 years ago, told The Washington Post. Studies by Stamler and his colleagues “put new tools in the toolbox,” Lloyd-Jones added. “He showed us that while genes can load the gun, it’s really lifestyle that pulls the trigger.”
Stamler also made headlines when he faced down the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities by refusing to testify in 1965. He and two others filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the committee was unconstitutional and had no legislative function. The case climbed through the federal court system to the Supreme Court for eight years before the committee — by then called the House Internal Security Committee — dropped the charges against Stamler, and he dropped his lawsuit.
Stamler was born on October 27, 1919, in Brooklyn and grew up in West Orange, N.J. His parents, George, a dentist, and Rose (née Baras), a teacher, had emigrated from Russia. He earned an M.D. from Long Island College of Medicine (now SUNY Downstate Medical Center) 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?’” Stamler told The Chicago 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.”
Nonetheless, research defined Stamler’s career, much of which was spent at the Chicago Public Health Department and Northwestern’s medical school in Chicago, where in 1972 he was named the inaugural chair of the community health and preventive medicine department. He helped grow the university’s master of public health program and became a professor emeritus in 1990. In 2014, he received an academic mentorship award from the American Heart Association.
Stamler published more than 20 books and 670 papers. He was credited with developing ways to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, and later conducted major studies on diet and blood pressure. In part as a result of his studies, normal blood pressure has been redefined, with 120/80 now cited as a benchmark for most adults.
Stamler was predeceased by his wives, Rose Steinberg in 1998 and Gloria Stamler in 2021. He is survived by a son from his first marriage, Paul; two stepsons, Michael and Jonathan Beckerman; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
— Alex Sachare ’71
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