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Dr Ancel Benjamin Keys: Monsieur Cholesterol

24 APR,2014 | Bangalore

Hiteshi Dhami-Shah

Dr Keys, who concentrated on preventing cardiology vascular disease rather than curing it, time and again, was criticised by various commercial interests. He used to say that there will always be commercial interests involved in matters like this. The important thing is to make people aware of the dangers.

Dr Ancel Benjamin Keys was the first driven interventionist in the field of preventive cardiology. Ten years back, on his death, the tributes paid to him by leaders of the medical world, the lay and professional media and his academic colleagues bespeak of the several fields he had pioneered during a long and very active career. “He was a giant in the field of nutrition in a variety of ways," said Walter C Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Our perspective on Dr Keys is not just to enumerate his widely acclaimed contributions on: saturated fat as a primary cause of atherosclerosis (the Seven Countries Study), high altitude human physiology, formulation of K-rations for the American soldiers in World War II, the Minnesota starvation experiment or the benefits shown of the Mediterranean diet.

Of course these are very important. But we would like to understand how Dr Ancel and Dr Margaret Keys searched for the keys to some of the locked up secrets of good health and longevity. An attempt to grasp how this couple’s minds worked in unison, with perseverance and future-creating perspicacity would be a story that would enthuse and inspire the young generation to explore the current challenges in the field of lifestyle disorders.

Research contributions
Ancel Keys, who had humble beginning, studied Economics and Political Science to get his BA in 1925 and later in 1928 he got MS in Zoology. After graduation, he worked as a management trainee at Woolworth’s. His love for science and research brought him to Scripps Institute of Oceanography with a scholarship. He received a PhD in 1930 in Oceanography and Biology.

Keys, in his fish research, used regressions to the estimation of weight of the fish from their length. This was a foundation in biostatistics that helped much in his latter epidemiology work. In the fields of obesity and metabolic disorders a robust knowledge of biostatistics is essential.

For his postdoctoral fellowship, he travelled to Copenhagen under August Krogh. Krogh was a pioneer in gas exchanges in respiration. In 1920 Krogh was awarded the Nobel for his work on capillaries and gas exchange. Krogh was student of Christian Bohr – father of the famous Niels Bohr. It is not known whether Dr Keys had any interaction with Niels Bohr. These sort of trans-discipline interactions have deep impact on young minds, expanding their horizons. The laboratory was small and the restless mind of young Ancel was in search of a more challenging milieu. After this fellowship, he went to Cambridge.

Dr Keys wrote, “It was fairly common in those days to move around a lot. Not so much nowadays, perhaps, but it used to be -- shopping around from one school to the other as a postdoctoral fellow. If you had the wherewithal to hold body and soul together, that's what you did. I was just about to accept a permanent job at Cambridge, however, when I got a cable from Harvard. So I said to myself, 'Okay, go to Harvard and see what's happening in the States.' I taught biochemistry at Harvard and stayed for three years.” He returned to Cambridge and earned a second PhD in physiology (1936).

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