Lewis Kuller, longtime chair of epidemiology at Pitt, dies at 88
“Throughout his long academic journey, he had a major influence on the careers of others, particularly the young investigators he tirelessly supported."
A renowned intellectual who built a world-class Department of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Public Health, which he chaired for 30 years, has died.
Lewis H. Kuller, who colleagues called a giant in his field, died Oct. 25 after a monthlong battle with pneumonia. He was 88.
Known for his intellect and as a highly influential global figure in the field of epidemiology, or the study of public health, Kuller took great joy in teaching and mentoring students, according to a Pitt-assembled obituary.
“Throughout his long academic journey, he had a major influence on the careers of others, particularly the young investigators he tirelessly supported, serving as a role model for the importance of collaboration in the pursuit of science,” the obituary read. “He ‘walked the talk,’ transmitting his passion for public health to scientists from multiple institutions and disciplines for more than half a century.”
“I credit Lew with why I became an epidemiologist — I took his course and never looked back,” said Jane Cauley, a distinguished Pitt professor and interim chair of the epidemiology department, which Kuller left in a full-time capacity in 2002.
“He was a mentor of mine. Eventually, we became colleagues, but we definitely had a mentor/mentee relationship,” Cauley added. “He opened the door for me and let me run with it. It’s been a great career for me, and I attribute that whole role to him.”
Kuller, who grew up above his family’s pharmacy in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, earned his master’s degree at George Washington University in 1959 and his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. In the years that followed, he established multiple large research programs in aging, women’s health, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease — including the landmark Women’s Health Initiative and the Cardiovascular Health Study — which changed people’s understanding of disease progression and principles of prevention, the University of Pittsburgh said.
Kuller helped create an Alzheimer’s research program at Pitt, and, more recently, was working to understand how cardiovascular disease can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, using the latest brain imaging and blood biomarkers.
He was the recipient of the American Public Health Association’s John Snow Award, the Chancellor’s Distinguished Research Award from the University of Pittsburgh and the American Heart Association’s Peter J. Safar Pulse of Pittsburgh Award.
Kuller was a professor at Johns Hopkins before moving to Pittsburgh in 1972 to take a role as professor and chair of the epidemiology department. A longtime resident of Fox Chapel, Kuller was known as a man who loved his family, toiled after his gardens and cared for an army of cats and Boxer dogs.
“My dad had a purpose, worked at it every day for a lot of years, loved what he was doing and loved the people he worked with,” said Steven Kuller of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, the middle of Kuller’s three children. “He improved the world in the small ways he could.”
Steven Kuller said his parents, who were married for 62 years, were very close.
“They were always together,” Steven Kuller said. “They enjoyed life together and shared the things they liked to do together.”
Kuller, who was Jewish, attended services at Tree of Life Congregation. He also was a frequent attendee at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and took his son up Cardiac Hill for many Pitt football games in the 1970s, Steven Kuller said.
Kuller also had a great sense of humor, and was very modest, his son said.
“He never had to do a study on chicken soup,” Steven Kuller laughed. “He knew it was good for you — he just knew.”
Alice Kuller, who met her husband on a blind date in 1960, pushed back on the notion, though, that Kuller was some sort of legendary figure.
“He worked long hours, he worked very hard, he traveled a lot, he was away a lot — but I didn’t think of him as being prominent,” she said. “We had a life with our children, our family — it was an ordinary life.”
“He was a very kind, decent person,” she added. “He was a very generous person and he always saw the best in people.”
Kuller had a steely resolve in the face of problems that came with aging, his wife said.
“He dealt with his illness without complaints,” she said. “I think he may have known his outcome would not be good — he was brave.”
Kuller is survived by his wife, children Gail Enda (Stephen) of Dallas, Anne Kuller (Brian Adams) of San Diego, and son Steven Kuller (Laura) of Camp Hill, as well six grandchildren: Helen, Grace, Sophie, Charlotte, Eliza and Margot. He was preceded in death by his brother Alan.
His funeral was a private graveside service. A memorial celebration is being planned for a future date. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.