Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Walter C. Willett was named winner of the 25th annual Bristol-Myers Squibb/Mead Johnson Freedom to Discover Award for Distinguished Achievement in Nutrition Research earlier this month. An independent panel selected Willett, who is also the chairman of the Department of Nutrition in the Faculty of Public Health, and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Willett was recognized for his pioneering work in the field of nutritional epidemiology, including the development of large-scale cohort studies and methods to assess dietary intake in large populations. In so doing, he uncovered significant relationships between nutrition and chronic diseases, including major cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.
More than two decades ago, Willett began developing new research tools and methods during his early participation in overseeing three groundbreaking large-scale cohort studies: the Nurses’ Health Study, involving more than 121,000 women, the 116,000-person Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study of 52,000 men. He and his colleagues have followed more than 250,000 participants over many years, developing and administering questionnaires about their dietary intake and health status, while also evaluating biological markers of dietary intake, particularly plasma and toenail samples, as well as genetic determinants of disease risk. By creating and validating questionnaire and biochemical methods to assess dietary intake in large populations, Willett has provided a wealth of data on diet and other lifestyle factors in relation to risks of a number of chronic illnesses.
Willett’s work has uncovered the health benefits of olive oil, peanut butter, and other nuts – so-called good fats – and the hazards of refined starches. He found that with the right dietary choices as part of a healthy lifestyle, 82 percent of heart attacks, approximately 70 percent of strokes, more than 90 percent of type 2 diabetes, and more than 70 percent of colon cancer cases could be prevented. He also uncovered significant associations between trans fats from partially hydrogenated oils and heart disease and between red meat consumption and colon cancer.
“By carefully developing the concept of the large-scale cohort study as well as the rigorous methodologies necessary for quality studies, Dr. Willett has given us essential and critical insights into the role that nutrition can play in the development and prevention of a number of chronic diseases,” says Robert Burns, director, Nutrition Science, Global Research and Development, Mead Johnson & Company.
Willett received his undergraduate degree in food sciences at Michigan State University in 1966, and earned his M.D. degree at the University of Michigan Medical School in 1970. At the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), he earned his master’s of public health in 1973 and a doctorate in public health in 1980, joining the HSPH faculty the same year. He was named professor of epidemiology and nutrition at HSPH in 1987 and chairman of its department of nutrition in 1991. He became professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School the following year.
His many honors have included the Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research and the Komen Foundation’s Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction (both in 2003), as well as the Association of American Medical Colleges 2003 David E. Rogers Award.
Willett has published more than 900 articles, as well as a textbook and a guide to healthy eating for the general public. He currently serves on the editorial boards of a number of distinguished scientific journals, including the American Journal of Epidemiology, Cancer Research, Current Reviews in Public Health, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, and the International Journal of Oncology.
The Bristol-Myers Squibb Freedom to Discover Grants and Awards Program, under which the Distinguished Achievement Award is presented, was initiated in 1977 in the area of cancer research. It marked its 25th anniversary in 2002, and so far has committed $110 million in funding to six biomedical research areas: cancer, cardiovascular, infectious diseases, metabolic diseases, neuroscience, and nutrition.
The award, which includes a $50,000 cash prize and a silver commemorative medallion, is presented annually in each of the six therapeutic areas. Willett will officially receive his award at a dinner to be held in New York City on Oct. 20.