Pitt Public Health Professor Emeritus Lewis (Lew) H. Kuller, a pioneering researcher in the epidemiology of chronic diseases who built epidemiology into a top department as chair for three decades (1972-2002), died on Oct. 25, 2022.
“He was a giant in his field,” said Jane Cauley, interim epidemiology chair and distinguished professor. “He built the department into one of the premier departments of epidemiology” while maintaining his own research and prolific publication schedule in top journals to this year.
“He was a very generous mentor,” she recalled, having first met Kuller in graduate school; Kuller was also on Cauley’s doctoral committee and she later worked on his women’s health study. “He was fascinating to listen to. He knew so much and his mind moved so quickly. He was a lovely person, very loyal and kind, but he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. He let you know if he disagreed” about a scientific idea. “Everyone respected him for that. He always did it to make the science best.”
Born Jan. 9, 1934, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Kuller earned his BA from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. (1955), an MD from George Washington University (1959), and both the MPH (1964) and DrPH (1966) from Johns Hopkins University’s School of Hygiene and Public Health.
He was a medical officer in the Navy (1961-63), then began his academic career at Johns Hopkins before joining Pitt. Here, Kuller established multiple large research programs in aging, women’s health, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease — including two groundbreaking projects that continue today, the Women’s Health Initiative and the Cardiovascular Health Study — which, according to his department, “made impactful contributions to our understanding of the progression of disease and principles of prevention.”
Kuller is one of the founders of the preventive cardiology field, and his work established blood pressure and cholesterol as risk factors for cardiovascular disease. He showed via major national clinical trials — including the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial and the Systolic Hypertension in the Elderly Program — that the illness is preventable.
He was among those who first recognized the significance of menopause for women’s cardiovascular health and conducted research to help reduce the risks. Kuller was also central to the institution of Pitt’s Alzheimer’s research program, which produced important findings concerning cognitive functioning in the elderly. His most recent work involved the study of cardiovascular disease’s effects on later Alzheimer’s disease.
Hailed by his department as “a prolific researcher,” “a superb epidemiologist” and a “visionary,” Kuller, department leaders said, was “known for his incredible intellect (and) took great joy in teaching and mentoring students. Throughout his long academic journey, he had a major influence on the careers of others, particularly the young investigators he tirelessly supported, serving as a role model for the importance of collaboration in the pursuit of science.” He was honored with a Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award for his years at Pitt.
Kuller was also awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellowship and a fellowship from the American Heart Association and Council on Nutrition. He received the American Public Health Association’s John Snow Award and the American Heart Association’s Peter J. Safar Pulse of Pittsburgh Award.
Anne B. Newman, UPMC chair in geroscience and distinguished professor of epidemiology, also knew Kuller as a teacher, mentor and colleague, teaming with him on the cardiovascular health study.
“He was always very clear about what was important,” Newman recalled. “He was always clear on what the big picture was. He was always looking at new data” and how to present it effectively. “And everyone wanted to get his ideas on how to work on their own projects. Everyone wanted to know what Lew would think … because he was so clear in seeing what needed to be done.”
Until recently, she said, Kuller was still sending her links to articles in her field so that she could keep up with the latest research findings, as he did. “I think his impact was through a lot of these other people — they call him a mentor but I think he was just having a great time talking about science. Lew talked about science for fun — he just enjoyed it so much.”
Bruce Psaty of the University of Washington’s epidemiology department worked with Kuller on the cardiovascular health study, since Washington was the coordinating center and Pitt was one of four field centers beginning in 1987 — a study still going on. Psaty was then a young faculty member and had not found a mentor at his own university. “Lew was tremendously generous and took me on as a mentor as part of the study. He was as kind as if I were at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Lew was just a national treasure,” Psaty added. “A generous, friendly, helpful soul. He thought broadly about the field and how to improve it and how to improve the health of the public.” Kuller’s impact on the field “was really tremendous. His mentees are all over the country doing good work. I often went to him for advice on scientific issues and how to behave with colleagues. He was a model of collegiality,” sharing data and promoting young investigators.
“He just was such a generous soul and set a standard and created a culture that allowed us all to thrive. He is in the hearts and minds of many scientists across the country.”
Kuller is survived by his wife Alice, children Gail Enda (Stephen), Anne Kuller (Brian Adams) and Steven Kuller (Laura), and grandchildren Helen, Grace, Sophie, Charlotte, Eliza and Margot.
A University memorial will be held at a later date. Memorial gifts are suggested to the Lewis H. Kuller Scholarship Award, which supports student tuition, books, fees, research and travel for students in the Department of Epidemiology.
— Marty Levine