“If It Isn’t Fun.” – Back to Business in Minnesota, 1971-72, “Henry, the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene May Be Shut Down!”
Toward the end of our sabbatical period in Geneva, in fall 1971, I had begun to get news from Minnesota that the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene (LPH) might be closed down upon the anticipated age-enforced retirement (67 years!) of Ancel Keys the following spring. I had not even met Lee Stauffer, the new dean of our school, and at this critical juncture I learned that he was tempted to acquire the space and salary support of our division for his own plans. Some of his advisers assured him that the famous LPH was a one-man operation that could not, perhaps even should not survive Ancel Keys’s retirement.
In response to what, for me, was a dangerous and emergent situation, I wrote this positive letter to Dean Lee Stauffer:
September 25, 1971
“Dear Dean Stauffer:
I recently met here in Sweden with Ancel Keys and Henry Taylor and learned the definitive news of Dr. Keys’s July, 1972, retirement and also of Henry Taylor’s view that he would not present himself as a candidate to direct the laboratory. Dr. Keys is taking a hands-off attitude, leaving Henry Taylor and myself free to make projections with you for the future of the laboratory. I look forward to discussing this with you soon after my return.
Obviously a new mission for the lab. and a sound fundable program are required. With a year or so leeway, I am optimistic for the lab’s future. This optimism is due to the interest, experience, and national standing of the lab. in epidemiological studies and clinical trials, the very real possibility of our involvement by next year in the community hypertension trials now in planning at NIH, and the likelihood of implementation of the NIH Task Force recommendations for a series of preventive trials in coronary disease. I would be surprised if we were not in the forefront of competition nationally for grant and contract support in these areas — if I have your support and am free to prepare the applications.
My national and international contacts will likely allow me to recruit some fresh young help — if I have your support and am given the opportunity. The laboratory can also make a stronger and surely useful contribution to medical school teaching, which I look forward to discussing.
I want you to know that I expect to stand as a candidate to direct the laboratory. It is gratifying to know from Henry Taylor of your positive position about keeping the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene as a research unit in the School of Public Health. I hope that we might work together to this end.
Henry Blackburn, M.D.
Playing Modest Politics for once in my life, I took “political” action and wrote to two others in Minnesota, Richard Ebert, chief of medicine, and Albert Sullivan, associate dean, both friends and colleagues in the Medical School. I indicated simply that if they had anything to say about my qualifications to lead the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene in a new direction, now would be the time to say it. They did — and the new dean listened. The clincher, I was led to believe, came in a letter to Dean Stauffer from the respected senior leader of American cardiology, Howard Burchell. The job was mine; now it had to be done!
Meanwhile, I had broadcast my potential availability to American colleagues. NHLBI began to explore activating my USPHS commissioned officer status so that I might join a new branch that would eventually become the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications (DECA). Colleagues and friends in San Diego, in Los Angeles, in North Carolina, and at Stanford, were particularly supportive in exploring possibilities for my coming to their institutions.
At the height of all this activity and these exciting new vistas, and with the new national trial, MRFIT, moving forward with plans at NHLBI that I would chair it, I suddenly developed a crippling back problem. It made a major life change, for some time at least, quite impossible. Simultaneously, Dean Stauffer came through with the offer of Keys’s chair at Minnesota, though diverting much of its state support to his purposes. This left me with an economically depleted division, staffed by two near-retirees, plus the unwillingly retired founder, Keys, still very much about, and few support personnel.
In a disabled state, yet with a great desire to try my hand at leading my favorite institution, The Lab, I took the chair. Within a year I was quite well and we had two major research projects funded and new faculty and staff hired. With the exception of a year or two here and there, The Lab, and its successor, the Division of Epidemiology, have shown a vigorous and steady development and productivity.
Thus, in spring of 1972, I, my colleagues, and my family all entered a new and challenging and turbulent era, for which the previous 30 years had not adequately prepared us. For an account of this period, 1972 till the present, I invite you to read the upcoming Volume II of these memoirs, due out in 2004.