Pioneer health researcher Peter Wood, 81, dies

Stanford professor emeritus did early research into the linkage between exercise and cholesterol

If you don't consider a link between higher levels of exercise and higher levels of certain "good" cholesterol a contradiction in terms, you can thank Peter Wood. Wood, an emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford University, was an early researcher on diet, cholesterol and exercise. He died March 3 in Palo Alto of bile duct cancer. He was 81.

His seminal research on the effects of exercise, diet and weight on blood lipids and overall health inspired decades of subsequent investigations and influenced current health guidelines that suggest lifestyle adjustments reduce the risk of heart disease.

Born in London in 1929, Wood studied chemistry at the University of London and eventually earned his doctorate in lipid biochemistry. A runner from an early age, he became a member of London's Herne Hill Harriers in 1946 and competed in race events while in the Royal Air Force in 1949. His athleticism -- he himself estimated he ran in more than 100 marathons in his lifetime -- was to become his inspiration for groundbreaking research at Stanford.

He moved with his wife, Christine, to the United States in 1962 and began his research at the Oakland Institute of Metabolic Research, moving to Stanford in 1969 to work as a research assistant. There, he collaborated on two large National Institute of Health grants with John Farquhar, a professor of medicine, and Nathan Maccoby, a professor of communication. One grant funded the "Three Community Study" to test the effects of public-health campaigns aimed at reducing heart disease risk; the other created lipid research clinics, one headed by Wood, whose collaboration resulted in a study establishing the relationship between lowering certain kinds of cholesterol and preventing heart attacks.

It was through these two studies that the three, along with professor of medicine William Haskell, established the Stanford Prevention Research Center, through which Wood reported a never-before-published link between exercise and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Wood and Haskell published a groundbreaking study in 1977, concluding that the blood of athletes contained high levels of HDL, popularly known as "good cholesterol," which lowers arterial cholesterol buildup.

Their discovery of a correlation between exercise and HDL was inspired by Wood's habit of testing his own plasma to develop cholesterol measurement methods, a colleague said. Finding his HDL levels unusually high, he tested the blood of fellow runners and found their blood to contain similar levels of "good cholesterol." The resulting study set the stage for 30 years of subsequent research that corroborated and extended Wood's findings.

Wood merged his two life interests of research and running and had published more than 150 articles on the effects of diet and exercise on overall health when he retired from Stanford. Committed to disease prevention research, he regularly lectured on running and health and remained active, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at the age of 72.

Wood was preceded in death by his wife in 2004 and is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Loretta and Barry Walter, of Bonny Doon. A public memorial is being planned, and Stanford is planning a symposium in Wood's honor.

The family recommends that those wishing to make a donation in Wood's honor may consider giving to the following organizations: BOK Ranch, the Humane Society of the United States, the Gorilla Foundation, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Special Olympics and Doctors Without Borders.

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Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Mar 17, 2011 at 7:18 am

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

I was privileged to know and work with Peter Wood in the 1980s as part of the 50-Plus Fitness organization. He was a delightfully civilized, brilliant man who moved our collective knowledge of healthful living habits forward. His best-known book, "The California Diet," still makes a lot of sense. It pointed out how little it takes for someone to become overweight as they get older and more sedentary, according to one beginner-triathlete website: "In the California Diet, by Stanford University's Dr. Peter Wood, a very clear explanation is offered: 'The typical overweight American at age 50 has put on two pounds of fat each year since he/she was 20 years old. So, at 50, he/she is 30-60 pounds overweight -- and it shows. But a gain of one to two pounds of fat each year means eating only 10-20 calories too much each day on average, or no more than a quarter of a small banana.'" A better measurement might have been the three or four extra French fries we munch.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard C Placone
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 17, 2011 at 11:56 am

Peter and Christine Wood were good friends of ours. Peter was so delightfully British that being with him was like living in a Masterpiece Theater film. His wife Christine was my administrative assistant for many years while I was at the Stanford medical center. She was dearly loved by the staff, and made coming to the office a real pleasure. The Wood's annual Christmas parties were unmatched in friendliness and hospitality. Not mentioned in the story above was Peter's love of the out of doors. After Christin's untimely death, he undertook a major climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa when most of us were sitting back taking our leisure. Peter and Chris were wonderful people and will be sorely missed by their many friends.

Like this comment
Posted by Annajo (A.j.) Sánchez (Kessler)
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm

It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Peter Wood and Dr. John Farquhar as well as their medical team; Dr. Stephen Fortmann, Dr. C. Taylor and others. I was part of Nathan Maccoby's SU Communications team, along with Jan Alexander, Betty Kaplan, Pru Martin-Brieitrose, Bernadette Castor, Elizabeth Adler, Dr. Steven Blair, Dr. June Flora, Dr. Wm. Haskel, Dr. Douglas Solomon and many other project collaborators. Dr. Wood's work "made a difference" in the lives of the people who participated in the "Three Community Study". Once these folk learned the relationship between lowering certain kinds of cholesterol and preventing heart attacks --- this knowledge was practiced by following generations. Needless to say, both SHDPP teams and 'the world' also benefited.

La Vida - Paso por Aqui

La vida es un tren que pasa
con carga de sentimiento
Esa carga no descarga
Asta al dar el ultimo suspiro

___Manuelita Duran-Bailey

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