“There’s a little hotel in Brussels that my wife and I stop at now and then, and every time I go in there the maitre d’, a lady in her sixties, says, ‘Ah, Monsieur Cholesterol!’”
Man of the Mediterranean diet no longer totes his statistics tables to prove a point, or at least he doesn’t need to anymore. His theory on the connection of diet, blood cholesterol levels, and heart disease is widely recognized now.
But if the great cholesterol controversy of the 1950s and ’60s has waned, Keys plainly has not. His retirement home on the Mediterranean south of Naples is perhaps more a way station than a seaside retreat.
“I was invited to give two lectures at the International Congress on Nutrition in Rio de Janeiro. So we left the Twin Cities for New York last summer — we like to spend July and August in Minnesota — and flew to Rio. Then we flew to Lisbon, Zurich, Milan, Naples, and home for a rest. Then we went to Athens, Bangkok, Singapore, where I lecture, Hong Kong, Japan, where I gave the inaugural lecture for the Noboru Kimura Foundation for Medical Research, back to Italy and then back to the Twin Cities. That’s about 40,000 miles by air.”
Professor emeritus in the School of Public Health and former director of the University’s Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, Keys has spent a fair portion of his life between stops. His first experience of traveling, when he was only two years old, was as a refugee from the devastation following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Some 20 years later he traveled to China aboard ship, and roughly 10 years after that trip he scaled a peak in the Chilean Andes in midwinter. Since then he has traveled the world over — a number of times — as a leading authority on diet and cardiovascular disease.
Still spry and voluble at 75, Keys has had a number of diverse occupations. As a boy he worked in a lumber camp for a while, then shoveled bat guano in an Arizona cave. He served as a powder monkey in a Colorado gold mine and later as a clerk in a Woolworth store. Many years later, as a physiologist and nutritionist, he developed K rations (K for Keys) for army combat troops, and then instigated and directed the first scientific study of human starvation.
He is a former chairman of the International Society of Cardiology and has been a consultant to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization for almost 30 years. He is a member of countless medical science organizations and has written hundreds of articles. And he is a friend of many peoples.
“I’m fully in favor of Minnesota, except for the winters,” said Keys, who lived in St. Paul for 35 years. “But I wouldn’t want to live in a tropical area either, though Singapore is lovely. In Italy we have snow in the mountains. Winters are mild. I noticed the temperature in Rome this morning was 59 degrees and a couple days ago it was 61. We’re a little warmer than that near Naples, but it gets down into the 40s at night.”
Keys revealed his characteristic blunt manner of speaking when sitting in his office at Health Sciences Unit A, a new building on the Twin Cities campus. “This building is antiseptic. No charm or character at all. But I suppose it works after a fashion. Still, it’s too cold in the summer, too hot in the winter.
“The old lab was below the football stadium, you know. It was strictly a temporary proposition back in the early ’40s, then it was extended. We borrowed and stole and cheated to fix it up a bit, but at least is had some character. The facilities here are very good indeed, as far as I can make out. But the building itself is sterile.”
Keys retired in 1972 after 36 years at the University, 26 of them as director of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, where most of his pioneering research on cholesterol and heart disease was conducted, along with other research designed to “find out before people get sick why they get sick.”

by William Hoffman