University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – An Offer from Ancel Keys

I recently found this momentous, if drab, first letter from Dr. Keys, addressed to me at Ancker Hospital:

January 25, 1956

Dear Dr. Blackburn:  Thank you for your letter of January 24. This corresponds with my understanding as a result of our recent conversation.  This laboratory will be glad to arrange a part-time appointment beginning July 1, 1956, or within a short time thereafter, which would provide for your participation in research and other activities of the laboratory for the year 1956-57. The details of the appointment, including  stipend and title, will be worked out in due course. It appears that an appointment of 50% time as the equivalent of a Senior Fellow would be suitable.

I believe these arrangements will be highly satisfactory for all parties concerned and one favorable feature is the fact that we can adjust the arrangements for needs as they develop in the future. I shall discuss with Dr. C. J. Watson the question of academic status and the formal relation, if any, with the Department of Medicine. I believe the prospects for the future in this laboratory are very good, particularly in regard to research accomplishment, but also in regard to academic and practical matters. 

Sincerely yours,

Ancel Keys, Director

In the final weeks of my medicine residency, I accepted Keys’s offer. I then had to go tell this news to the mighty, now mightily disgruntled chairman of medicine, Cecil Watson, who had simultaneously offered me an assistant faculty position at the Ancker-Ramsey County Hospital. My decision, for the nonce, was not to pursue academic internal medicine but rather to join “those weird guys doing all those funny things over in that crazy place,” as Watson characterized it, underneath the football stadium. I sensed immediately that, if this were my judgment, I would be forever excluded from the cloister of Minnesota’s Internal Medicine Academia. My sense was prescient.

Never mind. The new was more exciting than the old, the broad more challenging than the narrow, and, in fact, I was going where I had been heading for some years without quite realizing it, that is, toward an interest in the common weal, in “sick and well populations” as much as in sick and healthy patients.

The very next day, I received the surprising news that Keys’s research fellowship salary amounted to only $4,000 a year.

After years of training and living on a house-staff stipend, and with the birth of our third child imminent, this would mean ongoing penury for our family. I accepted the job, nevertheless, and became an enthusiastic research fellow, with the stars of academic anticipation shining in my eyes. In a master’s degree project I burnt the midnight oil beneath the stadium.

Simultaneously, however, I had to accept the generous offer of St. Paul cardiologist-internist Ben Sommers for part-time office and hospital practice duties. And then, through the mediation of friend and actuary Ernest Klepetar, I became medical director of a local cooperative insurance company, Mutual Service of St. Paul. Only with all three positions could I elevate my earnings to the level of “a living wage,” in those days, $8,000.

Though our family’s sustenance was now assured by all this enterprise, my efforts were spread among family and jobs that ranged widely geographically, from our West Bloomington exurban residence on Bush Lake, I traveled eastward many miles on old Highway 5 and Seventh St. to downtown St. Paul offices and hospitals, then back to the Midway for insurance work, then to “the Lab” at the university. Very soon, that already wide range of movement was to become worldwide. I became involved in the international surveys initiating the Seven Countries Study.

Nowadays, I recall these hectic times in the ’50s as a grand and happy adventure. I suspect that Nelly, my wife and companion then, might recall them otherwise. But together we managed, I think, a remarkable family and social life, with an idyll on the lake, with travel and entertaining, with skiing and camping and canoeing and fishing, with wonderful and close family times, all in the midst of frenetic professional and essential child-rearing activities. Nelly was the center and heart of all this activity, having boundless energy and a positive spirit throughout.

“The Lab” under Memorial Stadium meant much to us then, as it did in the lives of many others then, earlier, and later.

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