University of Minnesota

David Kritchevsky, Ph.D. (1920-2006)

Kritchevsky, David

David Kritchevsky was not a member of the epidemiological community but appears on this history website because he was one of the first cardiovascular disease investigators to explore the relationship of serum lipids and atherosclerosis. He tended to observe epidemiological efforts in the field of diet and lipids and coronary disease with a bemused wisdom and quiet skepticism.

In 1958 he published a book, a first treatise on “Cholesterol” (John Wiley & Sons, London), which opens with a description of learning from Ecclesiastes: “The first man knew her not perfectly and in like manner, the last has not traced her out.” According to Kritchevsky, Ecclesiastes might well have been speaking of cholesterol. As he indicated, “innumerable uncertainties” existed about its biological function and significance in mid-20th century. At any rate, he clearly has a place in the group he labels the “scientific elite” of investigators historically concerned with cholesterol, health, and disease.

Kritchevsky immigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1923, achieved a B.A. and M.S. in chemistry at the U. of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at Northwestern in 1948.

Most of his professional life was spent in Philadelphia at the Wistar Institute and with the graduate faculty in molecular biology at the U. of Pennsylvania. He held many central positions in medical and nutritional science, including the Food and Nutrition Board during its more “conservative years” of the late 1970s.

His 1958 book attempted to unify knowledge about cholesterol and atherosclerosis and dealt with its chemistry, biosynthesis, functions, and role in disease. In it he appropriately points out that “even erroneous interpretations of data have made [contributions] to overall knowledge” (page viii). Already in the mid-1950s, he indicated that cholesterol and atherosclerosis were synonymous terms in the popular mind. He also provided this other truism: “the literature relating to atherosclerosis is so extensive that it is possible to find conflicting views on practically every aspect of the disease” (ibid.143).

He traced the relationship of cholesterol to atherosclerosis from the 1840s’ work of Vogel on free and esterified cholesterol excess in arterial plaques, to the classic Russian experimental pathology in the early 20th century, feeding pure cholesterol, and indicated how that opened a floodgate for the still-continuing investigations of lipid feeding and diet. He importantly attacked the idea that atherosclerosis cannot be experimentally produced in carnivores as no argument against its importance in humans. He gives credit to Rosenthal for the first clear statement in 1934 that “no ethnic group subsisting on a cholesterol-rich diet is free of atherosclerosis”(ibid.).

With his vast understanding of the chemistry, physiology, anatomy, and pathology of “cholesterol,” and with his critical mind and skills at satire, Kritchevsky was for many decades an effective as well as charming and amusing analyst of “diet-heart” ideas. He may never have arrived at a full “population view” of coronary disease but he assimilated and synthesized the epidemiological evidence better than other bench scientists. Some of us were privileged to hear his satirical renderings on the subject of cholesterol and culture in the form of delightful doggerel, accompanied by barrelhouse piano, with which he amused intimates over the years.

I treasure an example composed following my lecture that he attended in Rome in 1980, on the evolutionary legacy of hunter-gatherer versus modern affluent lifestyles in the genesis of the coronary epidemic. As I completed an illustrated story of early humans, he passed me this comment about a fallacy, or at least, a clear omission of longevity from my thesis:

“Would the winds of fate could carry

Me out to the Kalahari—

Life is not an awful rush

Living out there in the bush.

Hunting or gathering are prime

Mess around or orgy—that’s all right

Never working overtime—

Low in lipids, pressure, weight—

Dead, of course, by twenty-eight.”


(Henry Blackburn, 4 December 1980)

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