University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Introduction

In the mid-1970s, Fred Epstein and I were commissioned by the American Heart Association to write a history of its Scientific Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. We accepted the task with the full intention of taking the challenge further, to compile eventually a history of the development of cardiovascular disease epidemiology and prevention research and its practice and policy implications. I took the initiative preparing the Council history, with Fred as collaborator and the Stamlers as editors of the product. In this my first major effort at writing about history, I discovered I was not a particularly happy researcher-documenter, poring for tedious hours through years of council minutes and memoranda. Happily, I found a few anecdotes about the tortuous political course of the organization and about those who forwarded and opposed its formation. But very  few.

Eventually, our history was completed and it was well-received by the Council at its Tampa meeting in 1995. Subsequently, it was published in the Council newsletter and in Circulation.1 I doubt it has been read because it is too much a document, too little a story. I was relieved at the time by Fred’s and my understanding that in our next and larger project he would serve as primary author and I as contributor and editor. We  would be aided, of course, by a cast of thousands, those who would tell their stories for us in oral histories. Then Fred Epstein died unexpectedly, tragically.

Beyond the devastating loss of this friend and colleague (see my eulogy of Fred in Part 9), his disappearance quite took away my appetite for history-writing. Only five years later, long after I was “retired” and had found satisfaction in writing editorials and personal memoirs, did I take heart and find my way back to our larger project. In the meantime, I had the encouragement of Rick Shekelle, who joined with me in recording three splendid oral histories from pioneers Ancel Keys, Richard Remington, and Felix Moore, while they were still in their prime. When Rick bowed out entirely following his retirement I found interested and pleasant partners-in-crime in Darwin Labarthe, Kalevi Pyörälä, and Milt Nichaman. Together, we have prepared a tentative outline of a history monograph and have each participated in recording interviews with leaders of the field. We are now, in early 2004, poised to write the story. The initiative rests with me, a willing spirit but somewhat subdued by the richness, magnitude, and complexity of the field.

Our travels for interviews and the transcriptions of the histories are funded  by AHA, CDC, and the Division of Epidemiology at Minnesota. We have made a proposal for more substantive support to the National Library of Medicine to include development of a “living history” website. Doris Epstein, Fred’s widow, has made a generous gift toward eventual publication costs and for our research associate today. The interviews, which sustain our interest and commitment, are carried out with pioneer colleagues from Oregon to Maine, from Minnesota to Florida, from Washington to London to Helsinki to Prague and beyond. We believe that in the end a good story will inspire interest and that a colorful website will contribute to the richness of the narrative, broadening the scope of the field.

The more touching of our new experiences in oral history-taking, I must tell you, is the reaction of distinguished senior colleagues to our calls and visits. They are uniformly happy to see us and to talk about the field and their careers and their passions even now not cooled. They also say moving things to us, such as: “My institution cares little for preserving this story. I have no intellectual heirs here. Please take my historic papers. Please take these historic photographs. Please do something with this legacy. This is important. Thank you!” Our satisfaction from such experiences is sufficient unto the large task.

The stories themselves will occupy a future volume but a major account, of the Seven Countries Study, already can be found on the current division website.

Blackburn, H and Epstein, F : A History of the Council on Epidemiology and Prevention, American Heart Association, Circulation, 1995; 4:1253-1262.

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