Keys, Ancel, 1904-2004

Alternative names
Birth 1904-01-26
Death 2004-11-20

Biographical notes:

Ancel Keys, B.A. (1925), M.A. (1928), Ph.D. (1930) University of California. Professor of physiology and founder of the Division of Epidemiology in School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. Developed the K-ration for the War Department during World War II; research on human starvation guided relief workers in post-war Europe; conducted research in the areas of cholesterol and heart disease, leading to the conclusion that higher fat diets led to increased cholesterol levels and higher risk of heart attack.

Ancel Benjamin Keys was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on January 26, 1904. His family relocated to San Francisco and survived the 1906 earthquake, after which they settled in the Los Angeles area, living for a time with Keys' uncle, actor Lon Chaney. He earned his B.A. in economics in 1925, his M.A. in zoology in 1928 and his Ph.D. in oceanography and biology in 1930, all from the University of California. The University of Cambridge awarded him a D. Phil in 1938. Dr. Keys joined the faculty at the University of Minnesota in 1939 as professor of physiology, after two years at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Upon his appointment at the University, Dr. Keys created the Lab of Physiological Hygiene (now the Division of Epidemiology in School of Public Health). He was asked by the War Department to develop a package of non-perishable food that would fit into a pocket for soldiers in World War II. Dr. Keys and his staff developed what is now known as K-rations. Dr. Keys kept close ties with the War Department and was granted permission to begin a study of the effects of starvation. The studies were conducted at the University in his lab on 36 volunteer conscientious objectors. His landmark final report, "Biology of Human Starvation" was published in 1950 and helped guide relief workers in post-war Europe.

Dr. Keys is best known for his research on cholesterol and heart disease in the 1940s through 1970s. He began a study of 286 middle-aged businessmen in the Twin Cities in 1946 and concluded that those that suffered heart attacks had higher levels of cholesterol, linked to a higher fat diet. He replicated his finding with an international study conducted on 12,000 men in 7 countries in the early 1950s. His research was the first to link diet and heart disease. Dr. Keys became a leading figure in public health in America and was on the cover of a Time Magazine issue devoted to diet and health in 1961. Dr. Keys retired from the University of Minnesota in 1972 as professor emeritus but continued to conduct research in Minnesota and Italy. Ancel Keys died on November 20, 2004, at the age of 100.

From the guide to the Ancel B. Keys papers, 1938-1967, (University of Minnesota Libraries. University of Minnesota Archives [uarc])


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  • Nutrition
  • Starvation


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