NEW YORKErnst 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 Generals 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
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 mans 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.
Wynders 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
Today, the Foundation has more than 180 employees and three major
officesat 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 (Womens 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 charactersNurse 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.