Kummerow, Fred A. | University of Illinois Archives
Fred August Kummerow was born in Berlin, Germany, on October 4, 1914-only a few months after the start of World War I. At age nine he moved with his family to Milwaukee where his father obtained work in a cement block factory. By his own admission, Kummerow began to blossom at a local technical high school thanks to an inspiring math teacher. After graduation, Kummerow worked at a wholesale drug company during the day and at night attended extension classes offered by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During the summer of 1936 he earned enough money unloading empty bottles at the Miller Brewery to enroll as a chemistry major at the University of Wisconsin at Madison the following September.
After receiving a B.S. in chemistry with honors from Wisconsin, Kummerow continued his studies there by becoming a graduate student in biochemistry. He obtained a master of science in 1942 and a doctorate the following year. Harry Steenbock, a Professor of Biochemistry at Wisconsin, was an important influence on the young Kummerow. In the 1920s Steenbock found that ultraviolet light increased the vitamin D content of foods. As a result of this discovery, rickets (a disease caused by a vitamin D deficiency) would be all but eradicated by the mid-1940s.
Kummerow followed in the footsteps of his mentor Steenbock. Taking a job at Clemson University in the fall of 1943, the young biochemist worked to fortify corn grits with niacin in an effort to combat pellagra, a disease resulting from a niacin deficiency.Ã? According to Kummerow, 5,000 people in the South had died from pellagra in 1942; by 1945, that number had been reduced to twelve.
His job completed at Clemson, Kummerow moved with his wife Amy (whom he married in 1942) to Manhattan, Kansas, where he accepted a faculty position at Kansas State University. Kummerow established at Manhattan what would become the pattern for his career: extensive research aided by a cadre of dedicated graduate students leading to publication after publication. His investigations increasingly focused on the chemistry of fats and the fatlike substances known as lipids.
In an early research project for the U. S. Army Quartermaster Corps, Kummerow discovered that the diet of turkeys affected their taste after they were slaughtered and frozen: turkeys that had been fed cornmeal tasted fresher than those that had subsisted on the usual linseed meal. As it turned out, the fat deposits of birds eating linseed meal were more likely to combine with oxygen (oxidize) than the deposits of those birds that had been fed cornmeal. This discovery revolutionized the turkey industry and gave Kummerow his life work-the study of oxidations and fatty acids.
Losing his position at Kansas State University after a dispute with the head of his department, Kummerow quickly recovered and obtained a post at the University of Illinois in the newly formed department of food technology. The young professor and his research program flourished in Champaign-Urbana during the 1950s. Flush with grant money from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association, and other sources, Kummerow and a team of graduate students explored the chemistry of fats in its many aspects.
In 1957 the prestigious journal Science published a short paper that was the result of one of these investigations. This paper, co-authored by Kummerow and two of his students, Patricia Johnston and Ogden Johnson, would in retrospect prove to be ground-breaking in its findings relating to the science of coronary heart disease. Kummerow and his students had studied autopsy and biopsy material from 24 human subjects and discovered the presence of trans fats in all of the samples. Many trans fats do not exist in nature but instead are produced by margarine and shortening manufacturers when they bubble hydrogen gas through oil. Hydrogenation is used to increase the shelf lives of these oils. Kummerow and his students suggested in their paper that more study was needed to determine the effect of trans fatty acids on metabolic processes. The paper made a strong if subtle case that trans fats contributed to heart disease.
At the time this paper was published, most medical experts believed that dietary cholesterol and saturated fats were the primary causes of heart disease. This belief hardened into dogma over the years. Meanwhile Kummerow continued to investigate trans fats and their possible role in heart disease. Along the way Kummerow discovered another possible heart disease culprit: so-called oxidized sterols. These artificial substances form when oils are heated to high temperatures for prolonged periods.
The research efforts of Kummerow received a big boost in the late-1950s when the oil heiress Ethel Burnsides agreed to finance a laboratory building for Kummerow. Completed in 1963 at a cost of slightly over $600,000, the Burnsides Research Laboratory provided Kummerow with a state-of-the-art facility for his investigations. After the death of Burnsides in 1972, the laboratory began receiving funds from her estate; in the 1970s this revenue totaled $12 million.
In the early-1970s the Harlan E. Moore Research Foundation provided Kummerow with a hog farm for his researches. He and his students subjected different groups of swine to different diets for eight months. After this period was over, the swine were slaughtered and their arteries examined. Drawing upon the findings of this experiment, Kummerow reported in 1974 that margarine and other hydrogenated oils may present greater health risks than foods containing cholesterol. The controversial study attracted national attention and the ire of the fats-and-oils industry. Kummerow again braved controversy the following year when he appeared before the Federal Trade Commission, which was considering whether eggs should carry a health warning label. Kummerow was the only biochemist to testify in favor of eggs at the hearings. He maintained that cholesterol from such sources as eggs and butter offered some nutritional benefits, and he also issued a warning against trans fats. In 1979 the muck-raking newspaper columnist Jack Anderson implied Kummerow was in cahoots with the egg industry.
Though retiring in 1978, Kummerow continued to work hard, researching and writing paper after paper with his graduate students and post-docs. Over the years the biochemist developed a theory that attempted to account for the sudden deaths caused by coronary heart disease. He argued that trans fats and oxidized sterols interfere with the balance between two lipids: thromboxane, which allows the blood to clot, and prostacyclin, which enables the blood to stay fluid. The lonely crusade of Kummerow against trans fats cost him, in his view, the support of the National Institutes of Health, his longtime benefactor. Fortunately for Kummerow, the Burnsides oil revenue and the Wallace Genetic Foundation came to the rescue, supplying him with much-needed research money.
The scientific tide began to turn against trans fats in the 1990s, and suddenly Kummerow was not quite so lonely anymore. Published in 1993, a landmark study by Walter Willett, of the Harvard Medical School, and others definitively established a connection between trans fats and coronary heart disease. Two years later, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a bid to have labeling for trans fats on food products.
Finally, in 2003 the FDA required trans fats labeling. But that was notenough for Kummerow, and so in 2009 he--at age 95--petitioned the FDA to completely ban trans fats, eliminating them from the American diet. The FDA having failed to respond, Kummerow in 2013 filed suit in federal circuit court seeking to compel a response. Late that year, the FDA finally acted, proposing that trans fats no longer carry a generally recognized as safe designation in a move that would effectively result in the banning of these fats. In 2015 the FDA implemented this proposal and gave manufacturers three years to reformulate their products or to petition the agency for exceptions. Kummerow finally prevailed in his long crusade against trans fats. He estimates that the ban will save some 20,000 lives per year.
Fred A. Kummerow died on May 31, 2017