Peter Wood, researcher who linked running to improved cholesterol levels, dies at 81

- By Susan Ipaktchian

Peter Wood

Running was in Peter Wood’s blood, and it was his own blood that led him to discover that runners had higher levels of “good” cholesterol, possibly lowering their risk of heart disease.

Wood, PhD, DSc, an emeritus professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an early expert in deciphering the effects of diet, exercise and weight on human health, died March 3 in Palo Alto of bile duct cancer. He was 81.

Wood’s early observation of the link between running and cholesterol levels led to a series of elegant trials that teased out the roles of exercise, caloric restriction, low-fat diet and weight loss on lipoproteins and heart disease. His research influenced current guidelines encouraging people to engage in regular physical activity, maintain a normal weight and follow a low-fat diet to lessen their risk for heart disease.

“Peter’s license plate said, ‘HIGH HDL,’” said Marcia Stefanick, PhD, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, noting the reference to high-density lipoproteins, also known as good cholesterol.

“Anyone who knew him even remotely was aware of his passion for running,” added Stefanick, who frequently collaborated with Wood, along with William Haskell, PhD, emeritus professor of medicine.“They also knew that he was devoted to animal rights and loved his dogs and cats, and that he was a world traveler whose experiences ranged from famous British luxury cruise liners, four-wheel-drive adventures in the Australian Outback, camel rides near the Egyptian pyramids and visits to all of the great cities of Europe.”

Described by colleagues as courteous and gracious, Wood was able to unite his two key interests in life: running and understanding how fats are transported through the blood.

Wood was born in 1929 in London and spent much of his early life there, later telling about the barrage of “buzz bombs” that barely missed his school during World War II. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from the University of London, and then earning doctoral degrees in lipid biochemistry there.

His love of running began early on, becoming a member of London’s Herne Hill Harriers in 1946, and competing in events while in the Royal Air Force in 1949. By his own reckoning, he ran more than 100 marathons, including 13 Boston marathons and six New York marathons during his lifetime.

He and his wife, Christine, who also enjoyed running, came to the United States in 1962 when he began his research at the Institute for Metabolic Research in Oakland.

Stanford News Service Wood

This 1980 photo captures Wood on one of his daily runs around the campus.

Even in the health-conscious Bay Area, Wood was way ahead of the running craze. He recalled that in 1962 he was nearly arrested while running in the dark — and in the rain — around Lake Merritt in Oakland. “You must admit, it isn’t normal,” Wood said the officer told him.

In 1969, he moved to Stanford as a research associate in the Department of Medicine and began collaborating with John Farquhar, MD, professor of medicine, and Nathan Maccoby, PhD, professor of communication, on two large, multiyear National Institutes of Health grants. One created the “Three Community Study” that tested the effects of a public-education campaign on ways of reducing heart disease risks in the nearby cities of Gilroy, Watsonville and Tracy. The second created a dozen lipid research clinics, including one at Stanford that Wood headed, that collaborated on a large-scale study showing for the first time that lowering levels of certain types of cholesterol prevented heart attacks.

“We called the clinic’s laboratory Peter’s Lab, and it was of great importance nationally,” Farquhar said. “He participated in setting the national standards for the measurement of blood lipids.”

The two studies were the genesis for what evolved into the Stanford Prevention Research Center, with Farquhar, Maccoby, Wood and Haskell as its founders.

In 1977, Wood and Haskell published a seminal paper in which they found that runners had high levels of HDL, which helps rid the arteries of cholesterol. This was the first published report linking increased exercise to increases in HDL, and research over the past 30 years has confirmed and expanded his pioneering work. Farquhar said the paper grew out of Wood’s own habit of testing his own plasma to develop methods of measuring cholesterol levels and noticed that his HDL levels were unusually high. “The light bulb went on and Peter looked to some of his fellow runners, obtained their blood samples and found that they, too, had elevated HDL levels as compared to non-runners,” Farquhar said.

Over the years, Wood conducted many studies aimed at measuring the effect of exercise and diet on cholesterol levels, publishing more than 150 articles and books on lipid metabolism, nutrition and physical fitness. He recruited a number of runners to participate in ongoing research about the effects of exercise on health, and in 1979 he co-founded and became the first president of this group of running enthusiasts. Originally called the Fifty-Plus Runners Association and now known as the Lifelong Fitness Alliance, the organization promotes all aspects of fitness among those over the age of 50. He also ran throughout the campus with an informal group of Stanford runners known as the Angell Field Ancients

“He was really built like a runner,” said Joyce Hanna, MA, MS, associate director of Stanford’s Health Improvement Program.

Hanna trained with Wood for a Pike’s Peak half-marathon in 1999 — a 13.3-mile course that takes participants to 14,110 feet above sea level. To prepare, Hanna and Wood went to the Rancho San Antonio preserve in Los Altos and asked a fellow runner for directions to one of the more difficult trails. Hanna recalled that the woman looked at Hanna and Wood, who was then 70, and told them the trail they were seeking was off to the left, but also gently pointed out some “easier” trails nearby.

“We felt proud of ourselves when we passed her. She definitely thought we were too old to do much,” Hanna said.

But the most thrilling trek Hanna shared with Wood was a 2001 climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. “It took seven days to go up and one-and-a-half days to go down,” Hanna said.

After their return, Hanna and Wood often spoke to interested groups of runners about the experience, sharing advice. “Peter would demonstrate how to put your weight on the forward foot and rest your back foot,” she said. “He enjoyed talking about fitness and being fit.”

Wood retired from Stanford in 1994, but remained a strong supporter of research in disease prevention and served as a regular lecturer throughout the country on running and health. He was also a supporter of the Great War Society, which promotes awareness of the effects of World War I. His wife, Christine, passed away in 2004; she worked for many years as an administrative assistant in the Department of Radiation Oncology. He is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Loretta and Barry Walter, of Bonny Doon, Calif.

Stefanick said a public memorial service for Wood is being planned, although details are still being arranged. Additionally, she said the Stanford Prevention Research Center is planning a symposium to honor Wood and his work.

The family asked that anyone wishing to make donations in Wood’s memory 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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