The 2003 Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research was presented on May 23, 2003, to Walter Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., who is the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition, Chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Willett was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences in 1998.
The 2003 prize money was generously contributed by a donor who wishes anonymity. Dr. Bruce Ames, 2001 LPI Prize recipient, praised Dr. Willett for his productivity and careful use of statistics to reveal important associations between dietary factors and health and disease that have been of enormous benefit to public health.
Dr. Willett was instrumental in the design and implementation of a widely used standardized dietary questionnaire to elucidate accurately the role of dietary factors in cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other health issues. He also works on the development of biomarkers of dietary factors that are associated with health and disease. He has been involved in the Nurses’ Health Study, a prospective cohort of 121,700 women, since 1980, and is the Principal Investigator of two other cohort studies, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study of 52,000 men and the Nurses’ Health Study II of 116,000 younger women, which was initiated in 1989.
These epidemiological studies, using questionnaires and biochemical analyses, have revealed a wealth of associations between dietary factors and disease. For example, Dr. Willett’s group has foundlinks between the intake of red meat and colon cancer, alcohol and breast cancer, obesity and the risk of chronic diseases, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (trans fats) and heart disease. His research also revealed protective roles for vitamin E, vitamin C, folic acid, and vitamin B6 against heart disease and showed that coffee consumption has no effect on the risk of heart disease. His group also found no association between a high intake of vitamin C and the risk of kidney stone formation in either men or women. Furthermore, Dr. Willett’s group found associations between the intake of cruciferous vegetables and a reduced risk of bladder cancer, high selenium intake and a reduced risk of total cancers, moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of diabetes, and the intake of lycopene in tomatoes and a decreased risk of prostate cancer.
Dr. Willett has been exceptionally productive, having published over 700 scientific papers and a popular book, Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, which offers a new Food Pyramid based on recent research. He also wrote an extremely influential textbook, Nutritional Epidemiology, first published in 1990. As one of the nomination letters stated, "Like Dr. Pauling, Dr. Willett strives ceaselessly to apply research findings for the benefit of the public...[he] exemplifies some of the features that characterized Dr. Pauling — rigorous science, a keen interest in human problems and their solutions, and the pursuit of truth, regardless of the opinions of others."