Dr William Kannel, Long-Time Framingham Study Director, Dies

Reed Miller and Shelley Wood

August 24, 2011

Natick, MADr William Kannel, who led the Framingham study from 1966 to 1979, has died at age 87 of colon cancer.

Dr William Kannel, Framingham Heart Study pioneer [Source: National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute]

Kannel joined the Framingham study as a protégé of its first director, Dr Thomas Dawber, in the early 1950s, a few years after it was launched by the United States Public Health Service (USPHS). He worked for the USPHS and as director of the Framingham study, oversaw the second generation of Framingham participants.

Dr Daniel Levy, the current director of Framingham, spoke with heartwire after returning from Kannel's funeral today. Levy, who started working with Kannel when Levy first arrived at Framingham as a medical resident back in 1982, called him "a prodigious worker" and "tireless."

Kannel "always had the ability to look at a research project and distill it down to its essence and identify a way to make that project better," Levy recalled. "When he mentored people, as he did with me in the early part of my career, every time I would show him a draft of a paper or abstract I was submitting to a meeting, he would always circle part of it and say, so what? And by that he meant that it wasn't nearly enough to just ask a question and do an analysis, we had to do something and answer a question that people cared about . . . and place the results of that study in context."

Dr Michael Lauer (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, MD), who first worked with Kannel more than 20 years ago, called him "extraordinarily kind, unassuming, funny, and brilliant."

Kannel was a long-time principal investigator for the Framingham study and remained involved with it until late in his life as an emeritus professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine. Boston University and the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute run the study today.

The Framingham study, which began with 5000 patients in Framingham, MA and has spawned over 1200 research papers, established the importance of many of the cardiovascular risk factors physicians and the public now take for granted. Indeed, Kannel is credited with first coining the term "risk factors."

According to Levy, the Framingham study was, in effect, Kannel's main hobby. "I would have to say that in so many ways for Bill, his work was a major part of his life--he was always working, working on airplanes, in his spare time, all day long when he was in the office or out of the office."

Even in his late 80s, Kannel "would walk around here and say: here's a great idea--maybe one of your fellows would be interested in this, and then he'd start pouring out ideas. That kind of energy, enthusiasm, and quest for knowledge was inspiring."

In his later years, says Levy, Kannel split his time between Massachusetts and a winter home in Florida that Kannel dubbed "Framingham South."

The study, says Levy "was part of Bill's persona: he spent 60 years of his life working on this study. He watched it grow from its infancy when it was teetering, to its adolescence when there were some ill-advised decisions that were made, to the present time where it is thriving and spawning offspring studies."

Kannel's other passion, according to Levy, was his family: he had four children, 12 grandchildren, and 21 great-grandchildren.

"His great-grandson, Max, actually worked one summer here at the Framingham Heart Study and is now a medical student. Bill gave Max his stethoscope and told him to 'do well,' and Max said: 'I hope I'll make you proud.' "

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