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William Kannel, 87; force behind pioneering Framingham Heart Study

Dr. William Kannel (left), with Dr. Thomas R. Dawber, whom he succeeded as director of the Framingham Heart Study. Dr. William Kannel (left), with Dr. Thomas R. Dawber, whom he succeeded as director of the Framingham Heart Study. (Undated File Photo)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Language determines how people understand a disease, and Dr. William B. Kannel put two words together that helped the world grasp what could make a heart stop beating.

“He coined the phrase ‘risk factor,’ ’’ said Dr. Daniel Levy, director of the Framingham Heart Study of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Those two words changed 20th century medicine.’’

Fifty years ago, Levy said, Dr. Kannel was an author of a study called “Factors of Risk,’’ which looked at the development of coronary heart disease.

“That phrase ‘factors of risk’ was turned around,’’ Levy said. “The lay public very quickly adopted that as ‘risk factors.’ And that became a phrase that wasn’t medical jargon, it became part of the public lexicon.’’

Dr. Kannel, who directed the internationally respected Framingham Heart Study and also served as its principal investigator, died Aug. 20 in the Mary Ann Morse Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Natick. He was 87 and divided his time between South Natick and Royal Palm Beach, Fla.

“We owe much of our current national policy on the prevention of cardiovascular disease to the work Bill did throughout the course of his six decades at the Framingham Heart Study,’’ Levy said.

“It’s a real loss to the cardiology community and Boston University,’’ said Dr. Karen Antman, dean of the Boston University School of Medicine, where Dr. Kannel was emeritus professor of medicine and public health. “He’s really one of the pioneers in cardiac epidemiology and helped established the field.’’

An author of more than 600 medical articles, Dr. Kannel’s findings touched on a wide array of factors affecting cardiovascular health, from smoking and drinking alcohol to exercise.

“We were able to tell people, ‘Your life is in your own hands. You personally can reduce your risk of a heart attack,’ ’’ he wrote in a report marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Framingham Heart Study.

As a young physician with the US Public Health Service, Dr. Kannel joined the Framingham project in 1950, not long after it began. He served as director from 1966 to 1979. From 1979 to 1987, while he was a professor of medicine at BU, he was principal investigator for the study.

Though an international leader in his field, he could deliver advice in ways any patient could understand, and refined his views as the study’s findings changed through the years.

“Eggs aren’t as bad as we thought they were,’’ he told the Globe a year ago. “There are studies out there on chocolate - it’s OK. We used to say if you had to have coffee, drink decaffeinated. It turns out that caffeinated is protective - decaffeinated is bad for you.’’

When it comes to propensity for heart problems, however, “if you have a parent who has cardiovascular disease, your risk almost doubles,’’ he said. “But even in those who have a bad risk profile or family history, the risk varies over a wide range. If you’ve got a bad family history, work harder.’’

Certainly he took his own advice when it came to work.

Born in New York City, Dr. Kannel was the oldest of three sons. His father emigrated from Poland, his mother from Canada.

Graduating early from high school, he wanted to study engineering, but was drafted into the military. Rather than serving, he was sent to college and offered a chance to attend medical school.

In 1949, he graduated from Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, then entered the US Public Health Service and trained in Staten Island, N.Y., before joining the Framingham study.

He was growing up in Brooklyn, and barely a teenager when he met Rita Lefkowitz.

“I was 12 years old when I met him,’’ she recalled. “I crashed a party. A so-called friend didn’t invite me.’’

They married years later, in 1943.

“He was just very low-key,’’ she said. “He never put on airs and was always very modest. I don’t think anybody ever knew of his accomplishments from him. He would never tell anybody what he’d done or the awards he got, which were many.’’

Along with having served as chairman of the Council of Epidemiology of the American Heart Association and chief of the section of preventive medicine and epidemiology in the Department of Medicine at BU’s medical school, Dr. Kannel received awards including the American Heart Association’s distinguished scientist award and the lifetime achievement award from the New York Academy of Medicine in 2006.

Dr. Kannel’s research with the Framingham study helped establish the importance of using a diverse population of subjects to pinpoint the causes of cardiovascular disease. Showing that many factors contribute to cardiovascular disease put the focus on prevention.

His own life was a prescription for how to avoid risks, and how some are harder to duck.

“Until recently I was very active,’’ he told the Globe last year. “In school I was a runner. I used to swim a lot, and hike a lot, that kind of stuff. My mother was a terrible cook and I stayed very lean. My wife, on the other hand, is a great cook and that didn’t help. Too much of anything is bad for you. It doesn’t make any difference what it is.’’

In addition to his wife, Dr. Kannel leaves two daughters, Linda Isaacson of Framingham and Patricia Hoffman of Middlesex, Vt.; two sons, Steven of Essex, R.I., and Scot of Royal Palm Beach, Fla.; 12 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.

A service has been held.

Long past his tenure as director of the Framingham study, Dr. Kannel kept helping other physicians by editing their papers for medical journals.

“He could look at a manuscript and reduce it to its key ingredients and make insightful suggestions that would make it better,’’ Levy said. “He would return drafts of a manuscript and might circle a whole section of text, and in the margin you might see two words: ‘So what?’ By that he meant it’s not enough to merely ask a scientific question and answer it, you must explain how the results of that study could make a difference.’’

At an age when many were content to retire, Dr. Kannel “was someone who would work, and work very quietly,’’ Levy said. “For many years, it was just paper and pen, even after computers became available. He would write drafts of papers just using notepads and pens.’’

As declining health made it “tougher to get around, he always said, ‘Remember, getting old isn’t for sissies,’ ’’ Levy said. “He took his medicine in a figurative way, accepted his fate, and continued to do his work.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.