Lives of the fellows

Ralph Seal Paffenbarger

b.21 October 1922 d.9 July 2007
AB Ohio State(1944) MB Northwestern(1946) MD(1947) MPH Johns Hopkins(1952) DrPH(1954) FRCP(2004) FFPHM

Ralph Seal Paffenbarger junior – or ‘Paff’ as everyone called him – was a professor of epidemiology at Stanford University, California, and at Harvard. His main, and outstanding, contribution was in the field of health, physical activity and the prevention of chronic diseases.

He was born in Columbus, Ohio, the son of Ralph Seal Paffenbarger senior, a professor of engineering, and Viola Elizabeth Link Paffenbarger, a homemaker. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1944, and went on to study for his MD from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. In the early 1950s he was at Johns Hopkins, where he gained a masters and then a doctorate in public health. He went on to academic posts, first at Berkeley and then at Stanford universities.

His first papers were on polio: as an epidemiologist in the US Public Health Service he had worked on the Salk polio vaccine with David Bodian. But his first major study, a truly monumental effort, was of San Francisco longshoremen, testing – and confirming – the hypothesis developed in Britain in the early 1950s that physically active workers achieve some protection against coronary heart disease, compared with men in sedentary or light jobs, allowing for other possible risk factors. This was supporting evidence of the first proposed possible ‘cause’ of the growing epidemic of heart attack.

Paffenbarger, however, was already beginning to describe and follow up college alumni in studies that would have much influence on the fields of public health and epidemiology – and also on public opinion, though alas not behaviour. He demonstrated that Harvard alumni with a personal record of physical activity ranging from 500 kcal a week to 2,000 optimally, and independent of other risk factors, developed less coronary heart disease, hypertension, stroke, non-insulin dependent diabetes and colon cancer, with some increase in longevity. Such benefit was graded by the quantity of physical activity and no benefit was discernible with more than the 2,000 kcal per week. That level was achievable, for example, by daily walking five city blocks or climbing 50 steps. Other crucial observations, again with substantial public health resonance, were that the exercise has to be current and ongoing. And, perhaps most promising of all, benefits accrue from exercise begun for the first time in middle and early old age.

His research led, in 1996, to the award (with Jeremy Morris) of the first gold medal in sports science by the International Olympic Committee.

Unlike so many of us, Paff practised what the research was showing – and began to exercise in his forties. He ran 22 marathons and, I still find it hard to contain my amazement, he completed the Western States Endurance Run (of 100 miles) five times. For this he was awarded the bronze belt buckle that he so proudly wore – even on the single occasion I saw him in black tie.

Paff was the gentlest of men. In 40 years of close acquaintance, I never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone. He married twice. His first wife, Mary Dale Higdon, predeceased him, as did two of his sons, James Harold and John Dale. He married for a second time, to JoAnn Schroeder, a nurse practitioner. He is survived by her and by four children from his first marriage: Ralph, Ann, Charles and Timothy. He died at home in Santa Fe following a long battle with congestive heart disease.

J N Morris

(Volume XII, page web)

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