Robert Wissler, MD, PhD, 1917-2006

December 7, 2006

Dr. Robert Wissler at microscope

A leading expert on the role of diet in the development, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, Robert W. Wissler, MD, PhD, the Donald N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor emeritus in the department of pathology at the University of Chicago, died from complications from an infection on Tuesday, November 28, at the University of Chicago Chicago's Bernard Mitchell Hospital. He was 89.

Wissler was a pioneer in understanding the connections between diet and the development of heart disease and a tireless advocate for improvements in the typical American diet. He did fundamental research on the role of specific dietary fats in atherosclerosis--the buildup of fatty deposits on arterial walls that is a major cause of clogged arteries. Later in his career he focused on the early stages of that process, designing and directing a nationwide study that documented the effects of elevated cholesterol and smoking on atherosclerosis in teenagers and young adults.

He also performed some of the first studies that focused on the role of the smooth muscle cells that line vessels, and of the immune system, especially the macrophage, in the development of arterial disease. Wissler developed some of the first non-human primate animal models for studying the disease. He then used those models to show that by drastically reducing dietary fat, these artery-clogging plaques could be made to regress.

"He was a pathologist's pathologist," said colleague Godfrey Getz, MD, distinguished service professor in the departments of pathology and of biochemistry & molecular biology at the University of Chicago. "He was at the top of preventive pathology. He played a role in all of the major societies in the field and received leading awards and honors from most of them."

"He was also," Getz added, "a terrific guy, a punster par excellence, an active participant in the academic and social life of the University and a valued, outgoing colleague who was concerned about and enormously helpful to those who worked or studied with him."

The son of two schoolteachers, Robert William Wissler was born March 1, 1917, in Richmond, IN. He doubled majored in biology and chemistry at Earlham College, in Richmond, graduating in 1939. That fall, he and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Ann Polk, also of Richmond, moved to Chicago, he for medical school and she to study social work, both at the University of Chicago. In 1940, after they passed their first-year exams, they married.

When the United States entered World War II, Wissler withdrew from school but stayed on campus to do research, sponsored by the U.S. Army, on the importance of nutrition for proper immune function. After the war, he returned to school. He finished his PhD in pathology in 1946, joined the pathology faculty in 1947, and earned his MD in 1948.

While completing his residency and fellowship training at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Clinics, from 1950 to 1953, Wissler began building a long and productive research career. He rose through the ranks, becoming a professor in the Franklin McLean Institute in 1952 and in the department of pathology in 1957. He served as chairman of pathology from 1957 to 1972.

From 1972 to 1981 he served as director of the Specialized Center of Research in Atherosclerosis at the University of Chicago, one of the first such centers in the country, where he assembled an internationally esteemed and productive interdisciplinary research group that focused on the causes, prevention and regression of atherosclerosis.

In 1983, Wissler organized PDAY, the multi-center cooperative study of the Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth--a $25 million national effort to study risk factors associated with coronary heart disease in young people. The researchers collected and studied the blood vessels from nearly 3,000 males, aged 15 to 34, who died suddenly and unexpectedly. They found a strong correlation between elevated blood cholesterol levels, smoking and the presence and progression of atherosclerotic plaques. Among other findings, PDAY showed that even in young, relatively healthy men, the effects of smoking and high cholesterol were "more than additive," Wissler reported in JAMA in 1990.

The author of more than 300 research papers, Wissler served on the editorial boards of several research journals and edited or co-edited nine monographs and symposia proceedings. He held leadership roles in most of the major national societies in his specialty, serving as president of the American Association of Pathologists and Bacteriologists, the American Society for Experimental Pathology, and the Association of Pathology Chairman, which he helped found. He was chairman of several councils and committees of the American Heart Association, chairman of the National Academy of Sciences committee on pathology, and chairman of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.

Wissler received multiple honors, including honorary degrees from five universities, including Heidelberg and Sienna, the Award of Merit from the American Heart Association, the Goldberger Award from the American Medical Association and the Gold Headed Cane Award from the American Association of Pathology.

He was also known as a teacher. More than 150 students, from undergraduates to residents, have trained in his laboratory, where they were "stimulated by his enthusiasm and devoted mentorship," according to Getz. "He went the extra mile," Getz said. "He was extremely loyal to all colleagues and students."

"He loved pathology, he loved teaching, and his students were some of his favorite people," said his wife. He also loved gardening. Even in an urban setting, "Bob always managed to find a patch of dirt," she said, where he grew tomatoes and corn, the sort of foods that were available at the Wissler household. "He was a proselytizer for eating right," recalled his daughter, Barbara Mayers.

Wissler is survived by his wife of 66 years; three children: Barbara Wissler Mayers of Chicago, Mary Wissler Graham of Washington, DC, and John Polk Wissler of Round Mountain, Calif.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. One son, David William Wissler, is deceased. A memorial service is being planned for early 2007.

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