Public Release: 

HSPH's Walter Willett wins Bristol-Myers Squibb/Mead Johnson Freedom to Discover Award

Recognized for pioneering work in field of nutritional epidemiology, developing landmark studies on relationships between nutrition and chronic diseases

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

(EVANSVILLE, IN, August 15, 2005) - Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr. P.H., Chairman of the Department of Nutrition and Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, was named winner of the twenty-fifth annual Bristol-Myers Squibb/Mead Johnson Freedom to Discover Award for Distinguished Achievement in Nutrition Research. He was recognized for his pioneering work in the field of nutritional epidemiology, including the development of large-scale cohort studies and methods to assess dietary intake in large populations. In so doing, he uncovered significant relationships between nutrition and chronic diseases, including major cancers, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

More than two decades ago, Dr. Willett began developing new research tools and methods during his early participation in overseeing three groundbreaking large-scale cohort studies: the Nurses' Health Study, involving more than 121,000 women, the 116,000-person Nurses' Health Study II and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study of 52,000 men. He and his colleagues have followed more than 250,000 participants over many years, developing and administering questionnaires about their dietary intake and health status, while also evaluating biological markers of dietary intake, particularly plasma and toenail samples, as well as genetic determinants of disease risk. By creating and validating questionnaire and biochemical methods to assess dietary intake in large populations, Dr. Willett has provided a wealth of data on diet and other lifestyle factors in relation to risks of a number of chronic illnesses.

Among his major findings: that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer and that animal fats can lead to heart attacks. His work has uncovered the benefits of olive oil, peanut butter and other nuts - so-called good fats--and the hazards of refined starches. He found that with the right dietary choices as part of a healthy lifestyle, 82 percent of heart attacks, about 70 percent of strokes, more than 90 percent of type 2 diabetes and more than 70 percent of colon cancer cases could be prevented. He also uncovered significant associations between trans-fats from partially hydrogenated oils and heart disease and between red meat consumption and colon cancer.

"By carefully developing the concept of the large-scale cohort study as well as the rigorous methodologies necessary for quality studies, Dr. Willett has given us essential and critical insights into the role that nutrition can play in the development and prevention of a number of chronic diseases," says Robert Burns, Ph.D., Director, Nutrition Science, Global Research and Development, Mead Johnson & Company, a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb Company.

Dr. Burns continued, "His pioneering research has led to new and enhanced understandings of what we can do to adopt a healthier lifestyle by understanding the relationships between what we eat and the risk of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Today, these three large-scale cohort studies represent the only such large populations with repeatedly measured diets over long periods of time. For years, his careful scientific methods and painstaking work have continued to provide us with new and important keys to unlocking some of the nutritional mysteries to help us effectively deal with a host of public health issues, not the least of which is a worldwide obesity crisis. Importantly, his work - both through his writing and through the advice it has spurred from government agencies - has had an enduring and important impact on public health and public policy."

Dr. Willett received his undergraduate degree in food sciences at Michigan State University in 1966, and earned his M.D. degree at the University of Michigan Medical School in 1970. At the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH), he earned a Masters of Public Health in 1973 and a Doctorate in Public

Health in 1980, joining the HSPH faculty the same year. He was named professor of epidemiology and nutrition at HSPH in 1987 and chairman of its Department of Nutrition in 1991. He became professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School the following year.

His many honors have included: The American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Award in 1994; the Distinguished Achievement Award of the American Society for Preventive Oncology in 1996; the John Snow Award of the American Public Health Association, also in 1996; the Linus Pauling Institute Prize for Health Research and the Komen Foundation's Brinker Award for Scientific Distinction, both in 2003; as well as the Association of American Medical Colleges 2003 David E. Rogers Award.

Dr. Willett has published more than 900 articles, as well as a textbook and a guide to healthy eating for the general public. He currently serves on the editorial boards of a number of distinguished scientific journals, including the American Journal of Epidemiology, Cancer Research, Current Reviews in Public Health, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention and the International Journal of Oncology.

The Bristol-Myers Squibb Freedom to Discover Grants and Awards Program, under which the Distinguished Achievement Award is presented, was initiated in 1977 in the area of cancer research. It marked its 25th anniversary in 2002, and so far has committed $110 million in no-strings-attached funding in six biomedical research areas: cancer, cardiovascular, infectious diseases, metabolic diseases, neuroscience and nutrition.

Dr. Willett was selected by an independent panel of his peers, in a process in which Bristol-Myers Squibb takes no active role. The Award, a $50,000 cash prize and a silver commemorative medallion, is presented annually in each of the six therapeutic areas. Dr. Willett will officially receive his award at a dinner to be held in New York City on October 20, 2005.


Bristol-Myers Squibb is a global pharmaceutical and related health care products company whose mission is to extend and enhance human life. Mead Johnson Nutritionals is a world leader in nutrition, dedicated to giving infants and children their best start in life.

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