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Public health pioneer dies

Former University professor and public-health pioneer Ancel Keys died Saturday from natural causes at age 100.

Keys was known throughout the world for research that established a connection between diet, cholesterol and heart disease. He was also the inventor of K rations, which were ready-to-eat meals used to feed U.S. combat troops in World War II.

Underneath the stands of Memorial Stadium, Keys founded the University’s Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene in 1940. This laboratory led to the establishment of the School of Public Health’s division of epidemiology.

Keys had a kitchen in his lab and often fed University students different diets to see the health and nutritional effects of various types of foods on their bodies, said Russell Luepker, a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

Keys also had an exercise physiology lab in which he and colleagues studied the health effects of physical activity, Luepker said.

School of Public Health Dean John Finnegan said many important people have worked at the school, and Keys was one of them.

“You look at a guy like Ancel Keys and marvel at the effect this guy had on the world,” Finnegan said. “If the rest of us can have half as much effect as Ancel Keys has had on the world, our lives will have been well-lived.”

Keys also discovered that when starving people were given complete access to food, it caused death, Finnegan said. That finding might have been overshadowed by Keys’ other research, Finnegan said.

“(His research) saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people,” Finnegan said.

There has been a rumor that Keys’ work earned him several Nobel Prize nominations, Finnegan said.

Luepker said Keys was as well-known for his work in Japan, Holland and Finland as he is in the United States.

“Dr. Keys was an incredibly hard-working, hard-driving person,” Luepker said. “He had high expectations of everyone around him.”

Students who worked under Keys occupied important academic positions around the world, Luepker said.

“He had few students – maybe a dozen or so – but all became fairly well-known themselves,” he said.

Keys worked for the University for 36 years and retired in 1972. Luepker said that although Keys was retired, he still came to work at the University fairly often during the early years of his retirement.

Luepker attended Keys’ 100th birthday party in February. At the event, Keys’ children talked about their experiences traveling around the world with their father, he said.

“There was a slide show of some of the places they went in the ’50s when it wasn’t common to do that and traveling wasn’t easy,” Luepker said.

Keys is survived by his wife, Margaret; his son, Henry; and his daughter, Carrie D’Andrea.

A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Dec. 4 at Washburn-McCreavy Funeral Home in Edina, Minn.

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