Robert Wissler was ‘at top of preventive pathology’ says colleague
A leading expert on the role of diet in the development, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, Robert W. Wissler, the Donald N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Pathology, Immunology, Human Nutrition & Nutritional Biology, and the College, died Tuesday, Nov. 28, at the University’s Bernard Mitchell Hospital. He was 89.
Wissler was a pioneer in understanding the connections between diet and the development of heart disease and a tireless advocate for improvements in the typical American diet. He did fundamental research on the role of specific dietary fats in atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits on arterial walls that is a major cause of clogged arteries. Later in his career he focused on the early stages of that process, designing and directing a nationwide study that documented the effects of elevated cholesterol and smoking on atherosclerosis in teen-agers and young adults.
He also performed some of the first studies that focused on the role of the smooth muscle cells that line vessels and the immune system in the development of arterial disease. Wissler developed some of the first non-human primate animal models for studying the disease and showed that by drastically reducing dietary fat, these artery-clogging plaques could be made to regress.
“He was a pathologist’s pathologist,” said colleague Godfrey Getz, the Donald N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor in Pathology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and the College. “He was at the top of preventive pathology. He played a role in all of the major societies in the field and received leading awards and honors from most of them.”
“He also was,” Getz added, “a terrific guy, a punster par excellence, an active participant in the academic and social life of the University, and a valued, outgoing colleague who was concerned about and enormously helpful to those who worked or studied with him.”
The son of two schoolteachers, Wissler was born March 1, 1917, in Richmond, Ind. He double-majored in biology and chemistry at Richmond’s Earlham College, graduating in 1939. That fall, he and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Polk, moved to Chicago to study at the University and married in 1940.
During World War II, Wissler conducted research for the U.S. Army on the importance of nutrition for proper immune function. After the war, he returned to school, finishing his Ph.D. in pathology in 1946. In 1947, he joined the pathology faculty at the University and earned his M.D. in 1948.
While completing his residency and fellowship training at the University Hospitals and Clinics from 1950 to 1953, Wissler began building a long and productive research career. He rose through the ranks, becoming a professor in the Franklin McLean Institute in 1952. In 1957, he was a Professor in Pathology and later served from 1957 to 1972 as the department’s Chairman.
From 1972 to 1981, he directed one of the country’s first Specialized Centers of Research in Atherosclerosis at the University, where he assembled an internationally esteemed and productive interdisciplinary research group that focused on the causes, prevention and regression of atherosclerosis.
Wissler received multiple honors, including the Award of Merit from the American Heart Association, the Goldberger Award from the American Medical Association and the Gold Headed Cane Award from the American Association of Pathology.
He also was known as a teacher. More than 150 students, from undergraduates to residents, have trained in his laboratory, where they were “stimulated by his enthusiasm and his devoted mentorship,” according to Getz. “He went the extra mile. He was extremely loyal to all colleagues and students.”
Wissler also was an urban gardener, said his wife, Elizabeth. “Bob always managed to find a patch of dirt,” where he grew tomatoes and corn, the sort of foods that were available at the Wissler household. “He was a proselytizer for eating right,” recalled his daughter, Barbara Mayers.
Wissler is survived by his wife of 66 years; three children: Barbara Wissler Mayers of Chicago; Mary Wissler Graham of Washington, D.C.; and John Polk Wissler of Round Mountain, Calif.; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. One son, David William Wissler, is deceased. A memorial service is being planned for Winter Quarter.