A 44-year-old grant

Step into David Kritchevsky's irregularly shaped basement office at the University of Pennsylvania's Wistar Institute, and you'll immediately be able to tell that he's been there for a while.

Mar 14, 2005
Maria Anderson

Step into David Kritchevsky's irregularly shaped basement office at the University of Pennsylvania's Wistar Institute, and you'll immediately be able to tell that he's been there for a while. Two walls are covered with shelves containing textbooks on nutrition and cancer, old almanacs, the Holy Kabbalah, and The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter. A blue electric typewriter, set aside to make room for a new Apple computer on the counter, is half buried under newspapers, journals, and a red U of Penn baseball cap. The plaques and framed certificates wallpapering the two remaining walls include nods from the Hollywood Academy of Medicine, the American Association of Cereal Chemists, and the American Cancer Society, some dating back to 1962. Near eye level, across from the door, is a framed 1988 Cancer Research cover featuring a black and white photo of Kritchevsky.

Kritchevsky is one of only three US researchers to be a recipient of the same grant since John F. Kennedy was president. Along with Saint Louis University molecular virologist Maurice Green and University of Minnesota chronobiologist Halberg Franz, Kritchevsky was awarded an NIH Research Career Award in 1961. Although the NIH awarded more than 50 of these grants, all the other recipients have changed their research focus, retired, or died. These three retained their funding for more than four decades by continuing to work in the same field at the same institution.

Born in Russia and raised in Chicago, Kritchevsky earned his master's degree at Chicago University and his PhD from Northwestern University. In 1957 he came to the Wistar Institute, where he has spent his career investigating the role of fat metabolism in degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease. He's studied the effects of caloric restriction on tumor growth in rats and the effects of conjugated linoleic acid on atherosclerosis in rabbits. He wrote the first textbook on cholesterol in 1958 and served as a member of the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Sciences that authored the controversial booklet "Toward Healthful Diets" in 1980, which created a media frenzy because it claimed that dietary fat, consumed in moderation, is not harmful.

At age 84, he still contributes to the ongoing debate on nutrition and health. He points out that Americans are living longer and healthier lives than they ever have before; but, he adds, many public health experts are predicting that even the healthiness trend will be reversed if we persist in our sedentary lifestyle. Little things, like the switch from manual to electric car windows, drastically affected the number of calories people burn on a daily basis. Portion sizes at restaurants are too big, office-dwellers get too little exercise, and no-fat, no-carb diets are unrealistic. The result is the current obesity epidemic, for which he offers a simple solution: learn self-control, eat less, and work more.

Kritchevsky's dedication to his field has earned him top honors from numerous institutions and professional societies around the globe, including those in heart disease and cancer research. In April, the Wistar Institute will honor him with a two-day symposium celebrating his life and work. Speakers will include colleagues and former students.

While some friends fondly recall Kritchevsky's days as pitcher for the WistaRats intramural softball team, including an 11-inning win, it's his forays into music performance and composition that he expects to be remembered for most vividly. As a teaching assistant, he used his piano skills (acquired in Chicago's jazz clubs) to write lyrics about biochemical reactions, sung to popular tunes, to help his students learn more quickly. His repertoire includes "Sulfur Chemistry" to the tune of "Chiquita Banana," the "Cholesterol Biosynthesis Song" to the tune of "Jingle Bells," and "Macrophage" to the tune of "Mack the Knife." More frivolous entries in his songbook include "If I Had a Big Grant," based on "If I Was a Rich Man," from Fiddler on the Roof. The American Oil Chemists' Society published his compositions in "Parodies and Commentaries," now for sale at all of their meetings.

Firmly agreeing with Ashley Montagu's advice to "die young as late as possible," Kritchevsky says that he'll continue to read and work as long as he's physically able. His lifetime grant, which comes up for renewal every five years, was renewed two years ago. "We'll see how I feel in three years. I have no ambitions to be the world's oldest vegetable."

For a HistCite file on David Kritchevsky, please click here.