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Making History

Albert J. Stunkard, M.D.: Early Pioneer in Obesity Research

If you recognize that obesity often has far more to do with genetics than lack of willpower, that obese people are no more or less neurotic that the rest of the population, and that most diet programs are statistically doomed to failure, you may owe these perceptions to the work of Dr. Albert J. Stunkard, a psychiatrist who many recognize as the father of obesity research.

Born to Horace Stunkard, a professor of biology, and Frances Klank Stunkard, a librarian, on Feb. 7, 1922, in Manhattan, he earned a bachelor of science degree from Yale University, and then went on to Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he earned his M.D. in 1945.

Stunkard did a fellowship in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins in the early 1950s. He then accepted a faculty appointment at Cornell University Medical College, which is where he became interested in obesity research. In 1955, he researched night-eating syndrome, an eating disorder in which sufferers eat 25 percent or more of their daily caloric intake after their evening meal, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night at least two times a week to eat.

Stunkard moved to the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1957, where he worked as a psychiatrist and researcher and became chairman of the psychiatry department in 1962. He left to head up the psychiatry department at Stanford University in California from 1973 to 77, but returned to Penn and spent the remainder of his career there.

During the 1950s and 60s, Stunkard’s research led him the conclusion that while conventional wisdom had it that obesity was a personality disorder, it is actually a medical problem.

Among Stunkard’s most important findings resulted from a pair of studies done in the 1980s. Both studies were done in Denmark. The first involved 540 adults who had been adopted at birth. It showed that the body weight of those in the study most closely matched the body weight of their biological parents, and hardly at all of their adoptive parents.

Likewise, a study of twins, some adopted and some not, showed that whether they were raised together or apart, their body mass indexes were nearly identical.

Taken together, the studies concluded that genetics plays a major role in body weight, including obesity.

A review by Stunkard of obesity treatment studies done in the 1950s led him to the conclusion that diet programs intended to treat obesity could claim a success rate of only about two percent.

Having linked obesity with genetic predisposition, Stunkard decried the stigmatization of overweight people, which he described as “the last acceptable form of prejudice.” He wrote a book on the subject, “The Pain of Obesity”, published in 1980. His later work focused on treating overweight people with behavior modification and dietary controls and advocated surgical solutions, including bariatric surgery, in extreme cases.

Stunkard, who continued to work full time at Penn until 1997, served as emeritus professor of psychiatry there afterward.

His work was funded for 50 years by the National Institutes of Health and he received many awards, including the 1994 Distinguished Service Award from the American Psychiatric Association and the 2004 Samat International Prize from the Institute of Medicine. He was a member of many professional associations, including the Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, and published more than 500 articles and books exploring the causes and consequences of obesity during his career.

Stunkard died at the age of 92 at his home in Bryn Mawr, Penn. on July 12, 2014.

By Frank Kourt, Staff Writer

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