Ronald LaPorte, an emeritus professor of epidemiology who had a unique and lasting impact on everything from diabetes research to open-access academic lectures, the modern Library of Alexandria and care for homeless veterans, died on Oct. 30, 2021 at 72.
As LaPorte finished his Ph.D. in psychology at Pitt in 1976, he jumped at the chance to take a post-doctoral fellowship in a completely new field for him, epidemiology, to work under that department’s new chair, Lew Kuller (now emeritus) and his research program. LaPorte soon struck out in his own direction as well, examining the benefits of steady, rather than intense, physical activity and of low to moderate alcohol intake on cholesterol levels.
He completed an M.S. Hyg. degree in epidemiology and served as a faculty member for 35 years.
Early on, he proposed and organized the first registry for insulin-dependent diabetes patients in Allegheny County, then worked through the World Health Organization to establish similar registries in 50 countries, which has been a boon to diabetes research.
As his colleagues note in the funeral notice composed after his death: “The most remarkable feature of this project was not the extensive and novel data collected, nor the methodology that was established (including capture-recapture to determine completeness of case ascertainment), rather it was the fact that this was achieved with virtually no funding despite WHO recognition. Ron’s enthusiasm, passion and willingness to help collaborators day or night was sufficient for them to work, for free, on this project and on related studies,” including Diacomp, a worldwide study of type 1 diabetes complications, and Diabetes Epidemiology Research International, a study of mortality in the disease.
This led to early population genetic studies as well as short, intensive diabetes epidemiology training courses. These efforts prompted the establishment of a WHO Collaborating Center at Pitt, which LaPorte directed and for which he received the Kelly West Award for Outstanding Achievement in Diabetes Epidemiology from the American Diabetes Association in 1988.
His colleagues also noted on the department webpage: “To his many friends and collaborators across the globe, Ron LaPorte was both the inexhaustible investigator who led them down the path of constant enquiry and an instant friend who brought energy and fun to any gathering.”
LaPorte’s connections around the world were astounding, Kuller recalled. LaPorte insisted Kuller look up LaPorte’s contact in Beijing when Kuller and his wife vacationed there, and Kuller ended up with a tour of a Chinese chronic disease hospital and a symposium with Chinese graduate students. The same thing happened to Kuller on trips to Korea and Japan, he said.
“They were basically one huge family of scientists all over the world who collaborated” on the registries, he said, thanks to LaPorte.
Kuller recalls LaPorte as “a very unique man” whose impulse to make epidemiological findings open to the world, along with his fascination with the possibilities of the internet, prompted him to create the Supercourse: a collection of free lectures from leading experts on all aspects of public health. Today it has reached approximately 2 million scientists around the globe with 203,050 lectures in 38 languages.
“He continued through his entire life to build on his idea of an open-society approach to information,” Kuller notes, most recently adding early COVID-19 studies as soon as they were available. “He was way ahead of his time on this. The Supercourse was a super-activity he was undertaking. He had very little funding. … It’s truly amazing that he fought through all these barriers” to get his projects done.
That included shipping thousands of books that were no longer needed here, but which had not been seen in certain developing countries, to the Library of Alexandria, Egypt. He asked scientists across the world to donate epidemiology and statistical textbooks, thus making them available to African students. The library’s emeritus director, Ismail Serageldin, memorialized LaPorte as “always smiling, always brimming with new ideas, always questioning why we could not make this a better world. Always laughing at the boldness, not to say the craziness, of his own ideas. Ron always had the confidence that, somehow, by working together we could make it happen… (He had) endless energy. He would write emails at all hours. 24/7. Always inventing something new to do.”
In more recent years, LaPorte took up the problem of homeless veterans, and began asking people to contribute their old cell phones to allow these vets to stay in contact with their families and with health care providers — a concept that the Veterans Administration has since adopted, Kuller said.
“He was a very good teacher,” Kuller adds, pointing to the students who went on to great success after his tutelage as ministers of health, presidents of national societies and leading positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its National Center for Health Statistics. LaPorte earned the Lilienfeld Lifetime Achievement in Teaching Award from the American Public Health Association.
One of his first doctoral students was Lucile L. Adams-Campbell, associate director of minority health and health disparities research and oncology faculty member at Georgetown. “Mentoring was his strongest suit,” she said. “He was considered the mentor’s mentor.
“He was really good at guiding and instructing and teaching on an individual basis,” she added, “and simplifying concepts. I talked to Ron seven days a week as a student. This was a 24/7 guy. He was always engaged the entire time. He enjoyed working, doing the science, talking about it.
LaPorte helped organize a department gathering of students and faculty every Friday during her years at Pitt (1979-83). “The key to that … was to get the faculty and students constantly talking and engaged. I haven’t seen that anywhere else. He definitely made certain that people were working together, collaborating.”
LaPorte is survived by his wife of 24 years, Jan Dorman (professor emerita in the School of Nursing), his sister Susan Bennett, her husband Jerry and their children Timothy and Jennifer Bennett.
Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Nov. 8 and 2-4 and 6-8 p.m. Nov. 9 at Schellhaas & Sons Funeral Home, 1600 Stone Mansion Dr., Sewickley. Memorial services will be in the funeral home at 11 a.m. Nov. 10.
Memorial gifts are suggested to the Department of Epidemiology at the Graduate School of Public Health, giveto.pitt.edu/ronlaporte or 412-608-0058.
— Marty Levine