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February 2, 2006

Obituary: Katherine M. Detre

Katherine M. Detre, one of the nation’s leading epidemiologists, noted particularly for her leadership of large-scale studies investigating cardiovascular disease, died Jan. 24, 2006, of complications from liver cancer. She was 79.

At the time of her death, Detre held the position of Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), an honor bestowed in 2002 in recognition of “extraordinary, internationally recognized scholarly attainment.”

“Katherine Detre was an extraordinarily accomplished professional whose work significantly advanced the cause of human health and set a standard of achievement that inspired her colleagues, here and around the world,” said Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “She also was a person of unusual grace and courage and will be sorely missed by her many friends.”

Until the last few weeks of her life, Detre continued to be active scientifically, leading GSPH’s Epidemiology Data Center, an organization that she founded in 1980. The center, which now has more than 120 faculty and staff, has coordinated the design, data management and statistical analysis activities for more than 60 medical research projects, with a particular focus on multi-center clinical trials and patient registries.

“Katherine was a pillar of scientific strength within the Department of Epidemiology,” said Roberta Ness, interim dean of GSPH. “Her skills as a leader, mentor, fighter and nurturer were legendary. Happily, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the Epidemiology Data Center, we were recently able to celebrate some of these accomplishments. Directors of clinical trials units from around the country returned to Pittsburgh to thank Katherine for shaping their futures.”

Detre also was a devoted wife, mother and grandmother, Ness said. “While continuing to generate data that will help determine the direction of coronary disease and diabetes management, she aspired to write a children’s book on science. She was the most special of people. We will all sorely miss her.”

Arthur S. Levine, senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences at Pitt, said, “Katherine had many strengths and abilities — extraordinary intellectual energy, creativity, wisdom, bigness of spirit, civility and generosity toward all — but her greatest strength was in leadership, especially the governance and conduct of science. Had I known her as a very young adult, I would have predicted these strengths — after all, she survived the Nazi era by obtaining a false I.D. and working as a tram conductor.”

Detre was born Katherine Maria Drechsler in Budapest, Hungary, and grew up there during the Nazi occupation in World War II. To cope with the losses she suffered during the war, she immersed herself in her studies at Pazmany Peter Medical School. “When I learned of the torture and loss of my closest family members during the Nazi era,” she said in a 2001 lecture, “all I could do was bury my head in the textbooks, whether they were chemistry, physiology or anatomy texts.”

Later, Detre was able to escape communism in Hungary by slipping across the border into Austria.

In 1949, Detre received an International Student Service Award to study in Canada. Three years later, she completed her M.D. degree at Queen’s University Medical School in Kingston, Ontario, followed by residency training in internal medicine at Queen Mary Veterans Hospital.

Detre moved to Yale University to be with her future husband, Thomas Detre, who was completing his psychiatric training there. At Yale, she became a research assistant while also studying biometry, the application of statistics to the biological sciences. She received her Dr.P.H. in biometry from Yale in 1967.

After completing her doctorate, she joined the Veterans Administration cooperative studies program in West Haven, Conn., and served as principal statistician for the VA Coronary Bypass Study, the first clinical trial to compare surgery to medical treatment.

In 1974, the Detres relocated to Pittsburgh, where Katherine became an associate professor of epidemiology at GSPH. She was promoted to professor in 1979.

Throughout her research career, Detre was well-funded by the federal government, private philanthropies and corporations for her monumental, often groundbreaking studies. In 1987, she began the coordination of the world’s largest clinical trial of angioplasty and bypass surgery for patients with heart disease, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

In 2000, as principal investigator, Detre began a 40-site, seven-year study to determine the best way to treat individuals with both type 2 diabetes and early coronary artery disease. That study, known as Bypass Angioplasty Revascularization Investigation (BARI 2D), was initiated with a grant of $52.2 million from the NHLBI, one of the largest research awards in Pitt’s history.

The study grew out of earlier work by Detre and collaborators nationwide demonstrating that diabetic patients on medication who had coronary bypass surgery were more likely to survive heart attack than diabetics who had angioplasty.

The study showed that, for patients without diabetes, five-year survival was similar for surgery compared to angioplasty, while patients with diabetes fared much better with surgery. This finding led to the study of treatment for diabetic patients with heart disease, which Detre was leading at the time of her death.

In addition to these studies, Detre led investigations of the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs on coronary artery disease, cardiovascular risk factors in women, long-term outcome of liver transplantation, resuscitation following brain injury and, most recently, bariatric surgery.

Sheryl F. Kelsey, long-time colleague and friend, said, “Through her persistent logic, Katherine has won over clinicians with her simple and profound message: A medical therapy is proven to work only when it has been tested in accord with sound clinical trial design principles.” Kelsey began working for Detre in 1977 and took over as interim director of the Epidemiology Data Center when Detre stepped down in late 2005.

According to Lewis Kuller, former chair of GSPH’s Department of Epidemiology and one of Detre’s closest colleagues, “Katherine’s most unique skill brought scientists together to solve problems using the best epidemiological and statistical methodologies, clinical acumen and basic sciences. Her integrity in pursuing answers to important questions was a model that will be sorely missed in the scientific community. She helped establish the gold standard for determining whether a medical or surgical therapy was good or not so good in spite of opinions of the experts. We have lost a great scientist, and the public has lost one of the most important spokespersons for the quality and integrity of good science for human health.”

Detre authored or co-authored more than 200 articles in professional journals, as well as more than 30 book chapters. She was a fellow of the American Heart Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American College of Epidemiology.

She was an active member of the American Diabetes Association, the American Statistics Association and the American Epidemiology Society. She had served on the board of directors of the Society for Clinical Trials since 1981.

In 1992, Detre was made an honorary fellow of the American College of Cardiology in recognition of her pioneering efforts in establishing clinical trials in cardiovascular research.

In 2003, she was honored with the Marion Spencer Fay Award for Women in Medicine and in the same year was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania.

In 2005, Detre was honored as one of the physicians featured in the National Library of Medicine’s “Changing the Face of Medicine” exhibit, which documented the many ways in which women have influenced and enhanced the practice of medicine.

In addition to her husband, Thomas Detre, who is former senior vice chancellor for Health Sciences at Pitt, Katherine Detre is survived by son John A. Detre and daughter-in-law Wendy Beetlestone of Philadelphia, and their two daughters, Claudia and Naomi Detre; and son Tony Detre and daughter-in-law Yvette Kovats of New York, and their two children, Alexandra and Paul Detre.

Memorial contributions for a lectureship to be established in Detre’s memory may be made to GSPH, Department of Epidemiology, 130 DeSoto St.

A memorial service will be held in Heinz Chapel at a date to be determined.

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