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Ernst Wynder, Pioneer in Preventive Medicine

Ernst Wynder, Pioneer in Preventive Medicine

NEW YORK—Ernst Wynder, MD, founder of the American Health Foundation and a pioneer in preventive medicine, died July 14 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He was 77 years old. The cause was thyroid cancer.

For half a century, Dr. Wynder worked to reduce the incidence of preventable chronic diseases, through lifestyle changes, beginning with his landmark 1950 JAMA article showing the link between smoking and lung cancer. He reported his findings 14 years before the US Surgeon General’s report making the same claim was released.

Dr. Wynder was born in Herford, Germany in 1922 and emigrated to the United States in 1938. He served as a US Army intelligence officer in World War II, and in 1950 earned his MD at Washington University in St. Louis.

He began studying cancer as a premed student at Washington University. After attending an autopsy of a 42-year-old man who had died of lung cancer, he contacted the man’s widow to find out if he had been a smoker. Indeed, the man had smoked two packs a day. Thus, Dr. Wynder began his seminal study of 605 lung cancer patients, with a grant from the American Cancer Society (ACS).

He first presented his results in 1949 at an ACS meeting, showing that 97% of these patients were heavy smokers, but the lecture was met with silence and doubt. It was not until 1985 that Dr. Wynder’s groundbreaking findings received official acknowledgment when his 1950 paper, written with his Washington University mentor Evarts Graham, MD, was reprinted in JAMA as part of its “Landmark Findings” series.

In 1952, Dr. Wynder joined Memorial Sloan-Kettering as an assistant researcher, eventually rising to the position of chief of epidemiology. While at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, he entered into a collaboration with Dietrich Hoffman, PhD, who had shown that chemicals in tobacco smoke are carcinogenic. In a 1953 paper, Dr. Wynder showed that mice developed malignancies when a condensate from cigarette smoke was painted onto their backs.

Nonetheless, his work, supported by the National Cancer Institute and ACS, still met resistance both from the public and from other physicians, including the director of Sloan-Kettering. Feeling that his research was being stifled, Dr. Wynder left Sloan-Kettering in 1969 to follow his dream of founding an institute that would focus not only on the issue of smoking and health but on broader aspects of cancer prevention and control.

With backing from real estate developer William Levitt, philanthropist Eleanor Naylor Dana and the Charles Dana Foundation, and David Mahoney, founding chairman of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, Dr. Wynder formed the American Health Foundation in 1969.

Today, the Foundation has more than 180 employees and three major offices—at the Ford Foundation in Manhattan, another in midtown Manhattan, and a state-of-the-art research facility in Valhalla, NY.

In a 1990 study called WINS (Women’s Intervention Nutrition Study), Foundation scientists showed that a high-fat diet is a risk factor for breast cancer. PINS (Prostate Intervention Nutrition Study) is investigating the effects of a low-fat diet on recurrence and survival in prostate cancer patients.

Currently, a primary focus of the Foundation is health education for children through the Know Your Body campaign, which has actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg as its spokesperson. The campaign features two puppet characters—Nurse Whoopi and Doctor Aaah (who bears a striking resemblance to Dr. Wynder). The 10-year-old program provides schoolchildren from kindergarten through sixth grade with information about health, nutrition, and exercise.

Dr. Wynder is survived by his wife, Sandra Miller Wynder, whom he married in 1994, and his sister, Lore Levinson of Springfield, NJ.

 
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