a very accomplished achiever. She once said that she was a “pathological optimist.”
We salute her accomplishments.
Dr. Elizabeth Barrett-Connor,a UC San Diego physician-scientist whose gift for recruiting patients and asking them insightful questions led to one of the longest, most influential health studies in U.S. history, died on June 10 in La Jolla. She was 84.
She passed away at home from cerebral vascular disease, according to her daughter, Caroline Connor of Pacific Beach.
Barrett-Connor, who only retired last year, was best known as the founder of the Rancho Bernardo Study, which began in 1972 as a straight-forward look at lipids, a fatty substance in blood that can cause heart disease.
Scientists were seeking a clearer understanding of how lipids worked, and their potential impact on a person’s health.
Under Barrett-Connor’s guidance, UCSD convinced almost 70 percent of Rancho Bernardo’s 10,000 residents to participate in the study, which is still going nearly 50 years later. She went door-to-door, helping to recruit participants who were soon being asked about more than lipids.
“We studied how everyday characteristics — body size and fat distribution, good and bad cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, physical activity, alcohol intake, cigarette smoking, diet and family medical history were related to common chronic diseases,” Barrett-Connor told the Union-Tribune in 2011.
“We studied the reasons for gender differences in heart disease and diabetes — our first questions — plus chronic arthritis, headaches, lung disease, liver disease, kidney disease, cancer, and cognitive, mental and functional health.”
Barrett-Connor also successfully pushed to have larger numbers of women included in the study. During its early days, the study was heavily focused on men.
The federal government poured money into the project because it was well thought out, and involved a group of people who were mostly well educated and affluent, suggesting that they had access to health care.
Data from the study contributed to more than 400 scientific papers and led to better ways to prevent and treat heart disease and diabetes, and helped doctors warn people about the perils of smoking and poor nutrition.
“So much of what she pioneered is now so well established in mainstream epidemiologic research that it may be difficult to realize how ground breaking her approach was at the time,” epidemiologist Kay-Tee Khaw of the University of Cambridge wrote in a remembrance of Barrett-Connor’s work and life.
Barrett-Connor was born on April 8, 1935 in Evanston, Illinois, the only child of Florence (Hershey) and Willard Barrett. The family moved a lot during the early years because her father was a chemical engineer who worked for ammunition companies during World War II.
The family eventually settled in Lee, Massachusetts, a small town near the western edge of the state.
Elizabeth became very close with her paternal grandmother, a postal worker in Lafayette, New York, as a child and when visiting “learned to read from the postcards with her grandmother prior to (their) delivery,” Khaw wrote.
She “learned to read from the postcards with her grandmother prior to (their) delivery,” Khaw wrote.
Elizabeth Barrett later earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass. She chose Cornell University over Harvard, earning a medical degree there in 1960.
She later served as a postdoctoral researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In 1965, she married Dr. James Connor, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases. He was recruited by UCSD in 1970, when the university’s medical school was in its early days.
She joined him on the faculty, taking a position as an assistant professor of community medicine. Two years later, she started the Rancho Bernardo Study, igniting a career in which she published more than 1,000 scientific papers.
Her accomplishments “would be intimidating to any young researcher, but her warmth and sense of fun are what strike you when meeting Elizabeth,” Khaw wrote.
Carol Connor was struck by how well her mother managed to do so many things in life — a fact reinforced by the recent discovery of more than 5,000 letters that Barrett-Connor wrote over a period of decades.
A 1981 letter says, in part, “A short note before I go to the clinic at the hospital to see travelers … On Saturday we had a beach picnic with the Isenbergs, but spent most of the day at baseball games for Steve and Carol — their last of the season thank goodness.
“Sunday we went to church, a nice service given by the high school group. Then I did some shopping and went to the beach for a swim and a long walk with Jim. We had the neighborhood pot luck at the Forrests — great fun but not good for my post-Germany diet …”
Carol Connor said, “Back in the old days, when there was no texting and no cellphones, she would write letters about managing her lab, taking the kids to the beach and having people over. I don’t know how she did it all.”
Barrett-Connor is survived by her husband, James; three children, Jonathan Barrett Connor, Caroline Connor, and Steven Jeremy Connor; two step-children, James Davis Connor, Jr., and Susan Connor Way; and 8 grandchildren.
The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers or gifts, people make donation in Barrett-Connor’s memory to the Rancho Bernardo Study Foundation.