Today I’m happy to share a post by our dear friend Milton Otto. Milton lives in Urbana, Illinois. We met Milt years ago at an Urbana watering hole called the Iron Post. He was running for city council and had just come in from an evening of knocking on doors. We struck up a conversation and ended up writing a check on the spot; we became his first, if not his biggest, donor. I could do a whole post about Milt, but that’s for another day. For now, I’ll share this nugget which he wrote last week upon the passing of University of Illinois Professor Fred Kummerow, and I hope you’ll give it a read.
A cussedly stubborn biochemist
by Milton Otto
This morning I had an egg for breakfast and read the obituary of Fred Kummerow in the News-Gazette. He was a giant. He lived to be 102. Honestly, he died too young. Bear with me as I explain what I mean by that.
He was part of the team that identified a deficiency of niacin in the diet as the cause of pellagra. Deaths from pellagra dropped from over 2000 in 1941 to 12 in 1945.
In 1957, he published his first paper on the link between trans fats and heart disease. He then fought a stubborn battle for over 60 years to force the FDA to recognize that trans fats rather than dietary cholesterol were causing our epidemic of heart disease and stroke. It was a lonely fight as his lab struggled for funding against the united opposition of the giant food companies and their powerful allies. But, eventually Fred prevailed.
In 2007, New York City banned adding trans fats to food. There was a lot of sneering and jeering from Fox News and their ilk. But, New York City immediately saw hospital admissions for heart attack and stroke begin to decline.
One estimate, based on New York’s experience, showed that a ban on trans fats that are added to food would save 12 lives per year per 100,000 of population.
In a country of 326 million people, halting the practice of adding trans fats to food would save 39,000 lives per year. That’s the equivalent of eliminating all deaths from traffic accidents. Would you be willing to butter your toast with real butter instead of margarine if it meant no one ever died from a traffic accident again? I would.
In 2014, on the cusp of turning 100 years old, Fred sued the FDA to force them to act and stop food companies from adding this poison to our food. In 2015, the FDA finally agreed with Fred and acted to remove this additive from our food supply by 2018.
Each and every one of us has seen uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents, siblings, and dear friends struck down too soon by stroke and heart disease. How many of those people would have led richer and fuller lives if, in 1957, those with power had listened and verified Fred Kummerow’s findings instead of attempting to silence him.
With any luck, by the time I die, Fred Kummerow’s hard work and cussed stubbornness will have saved well north of 1 million lives. Very few of those people will ever know his name.
So, that is the end of Fred Kummerow’s obituary. But, it’s not quite the end of what I learned this morning.
It turns out that Fred Kummerow was born in Berlin, Germany during World War I. His early childhood was filled with hunger and want. His mother put Fred and his brother to bed on weekends to conserve their energy because they had so little food. Eventually, relatives in America sent money so that Fred’s family could come to Milwaukee.
Fortunately, Fred’s family was welcomed. Although Fred was 8 years old, he was placed in first grade at school because he spoke not a word of English.
By the time he was in 8th grade, he had caught back up to grade level and was winning U.S. History contests at his school.
America was much poorer in 1922 than it is today. It had just survived the most catastrophic episode of organized violence that the world had ever seen in World War I. It had every reason to turn away the family of a soldier who had fought on the other side in that awful blood-letting.
But, America didn’t turn away Fred Kummerow’s family.
And because America didn’t turn away Fred Kummerow, millions of people will live who otherwise would have died.
Donald Rumsfeld, arguing that we should invade Iraq, observed, “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”
What our conservative friends sometimes forget is that Rumsfeld’s logic applies not just to evil, but also to good.
When we are kind, there are good things that we know will result. A child gets to eat.
We also know that our kindness often results in other good things which we cannot predict. That child grows up and becomes a college professor.
What we cannot lose sight of is that sometimes kindness results in good things that no one could have imagined. That child becomes a cussedly stubborn biochemist who hammers away for decades until he has saved millions of lives.
Is one of the unaccompanied minors currently in the Urbana school system the next Fred Kummerow?
I don’t know. I guess that’s an unknown unknown.
But, I’m optimistic.