University of Minnesota

Ancel Keys on the Mission of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, 1945

[ed. These notes on the founding of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota, written by Ancel Keys on February 9, 1945, help establish the origins of his broader thinking in human physiology, which became the precursor to an epidemiologic approach. The memorandum resulted from a discussion among the late President of the University, Lotus Coffman, Harold Diehl, Dean of the Medical School, Frank McCormack, Director of Athletics, Ancel Keys, physiologist and founder, and Maurice Visscher, Head of Physiology.]

The first purpose was to establish a focus for research on the physiology of man as related to the conditions of his life and to provide better instruction in physiology for students of physical education.

Temporary headquarters were established in Room 314 Millard Hall in the latter part of 1937. In the spring of 1938, operations were begun on a limited scale in Room 307 and adjoining rooms of Millard Hall. Basic equipment and space for controlled studies on human activity became available in 1939 and 1940. In the spring of 1941, the program of the Laboratory was largely devoted to work on military problems, chiefly army rations. In the summer of 1942, the Laboratory was moved to the present location under the south tower of the Stadium. The housing for subjects in the upper part of the stadium was provided, on a temporary basis, in the Fall of 1944.”

[ed. Keys goes on to describe the space, 11,000 square feet, and the experimental rooms with constant temperature and humidity, the shop, the power supply, and a description of the subjects used in the Laboratory’s researches.]

The central theme of the Laboratory is the exact measurement of human function and the factors affecting human performance and behavior. . . As far as possible an attempt is made to explore and examine at least selected variables representative of the major areas of function which may enter or affect or predict performance. Biochemical, physiological, and psychological observations are made in parallel. Special efforts are made to use and to perfect functional tests in the nature of standardized stresses using approaches not dissimilar to that of the engineering testing laboratory, and efforts were made to adhere to equally rigorous standards. Much emphasis is placed on muscular performance because of relative ease of standardization and the wide ramifications in total physiological adjustment related to physical activity. . . We are convinced of the importance of subjecting the problem of individual physiology to careful scrutiny in the non-disease state as well as in the presence of disease.

[ed. Then he breaks down the variables into dependent variables such as blood and urine chemistry, circulation, excretion, vision, hearing, motor speed, coordination, endurance, strength, intellectual function and emotional states, and independent variables: temperature, exercise training, sleep, posture, diet, oxygen supply, and so on. He then proposes studies of the relationships between the dependent and independent variables one by one.]

We are learning that this method is limited when the real question happens to concern the total behavior and performance of the whole organism. This Laboratory operates in the belief that the whole is frequently not predictable, quantitatively, from the separate examination of the isolated parts.

It may be stated that the Laboratory is devoted to the study of the entities which are loosely termed “fitness,” “health,” and “fatigue.” A major concern is to supply quantitative, objective criteria which may be applied to clarify these vague but obviously very important concepts. It is hoped that in the process there will emerge the beginnings of a real science of physiological hygiene. The goal toward which we should like to contribute is the utopian situation which, from a study of a given individual now, it would be possible to predict both short time and long-range physiological results from a given mode of life, personal habits, activity and diet.

There is at present in the United States no other laboratory or institute precisely comparable to the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, . . an approximation being the Fatigue Laboratory at Harvard.

[ed. Keys mentions a few laboratories such as those at Northwestern and Cornell that are using multi-variable approaches to human performance and those dealing with special aspects of human function, circulation, renal function, and metabolism. He speaks of the development of research on human performance for the Navy, the Public Health Service, and the Army and Air Force, and of pre-war development of such activities in Germany, Russia, Japan, Belgium, Italy, and England. And then he speculates about what should happen after the War:

The ordinary university department is very seriously handicapped in attacking problems of human performance ‘fitness’ and ‘health,’ efficiently and realistically. Special laboratories, departments or institutes are needed in which similar facilities, experience, organization and viewpoints are combined. In many ways it would be unfortunate both for the nation and for the universities, if research of this nature would be left wholly or even largely to the bureaucratic development of the Federal Government.

Federal subvention may be necessary but in any case it may hoped at least some of the universities may find it possible in this as in other fields of science, to maintain leadership and knowledge by advancing research which is fundamental without limitation to the strictly academic, and practical without being commercial. We believe the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene has unusual advantages which should allow significant developments in the future.

[ed. This is the best source and summary of Ancel Keys’s early vision of physiological hygiene, the laboratory in Minnesota, and of the actual course of events and dates in its founding. The document is an internal memorandum deposited in the CVD History Archive, School of Public Health, Univ. of Minnesota. It will eventually rest in the Univ. of Minnesota University Archives.] (Henry Blackburn 2007)