Frank Sacks’ pathbreaking career in nutrition and heart health celebrated

Frank Sacks and Majken Jensen
Frank Sacks pictured in his lab with Majken Jensen in 2018. Jensen, currently an epidemiology professor at the University of Copenhagen and an adjunct professor in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Nutrition, spoke at Sacks’ retirement celebration.

April 10, 2024 — Colleagues, mentees, and friends of Frank Sacks recently gathered to celebrate his nearly 50-year career in nutrition and public health. Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention and medicine, emeritus, at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is known for his laboratory research on human lipoprotein metabolism and his leadership of clinical trials in diet and cardiovascular disease.

His landmark contributions to the field include discovering new species of human lipoproteins that differentially predict coronary heart disease. The clinical trials he ran, including DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), POUNDS Lost, and MIND, informed dietary guidelines from organizations including the American Heart Association and have increased understanding around diet, weight loss, and healthy aging.

Sacks also served as a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and as a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he ran a clinic in hyperlipidemia with the cardiovascular division.

Frank Sacks holding a microphone
Frank Sacks speaks at his retirement celebration.

Throughout his retirement celebration, which was held March 26 in the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at HMS, speakers noted the impact that his skills and experience had on research in the Department of Nutrition, and shared their admiration for his scientific rigor, collaborative spirit, and supportive mentorship.

Calling Sacks’ ability to bridge disciplines—including clinical medicine, nutrition, biochemistry, and epidemiology—uncanny, Frank Hu, department chair and Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology, said that Sacks’ rare convergence of skills has uniquely advanced the field.

Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, spoke about collaborating with Sacks on numerous studies before Sacks joined the School. When Willett became chair in the early 1990s, he brought Sacks over to the faculty. “Probably one of the best decisions that I ever made,” he said.

Dean Andrea Baccarelli, who recalled leading a discussion on results from DASH when he was in medical school, said Sacks was “exemplary of what the School is about.” He said, “All of us are grateful for your research, for your practice, and for your support of students, trainees, staff, and faculty.”

Other speakers who shared their research collaborations and personal experiences with Sacks included Bernard Rosner, professor in the Department of Biostatistics; Meir Stampfer, research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and faculty affiliate in the Department of Nutrition; and colleagues from HMS and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Sacks described first becoming interested in how best to eat for human and planetary health when he was studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1970s and shared an apartment with a roommate who practiced a macrobiotic diet.

Offering advice to researchers considering an academic career, he quipped, “You have to like work because you’re going to work a lot.” However, he recommended taking a risk and giving it a try. He credited his research staff with playing a key role in his success.

Of his career, Sacks said, “It’s been a great ride.” Although he is retiring, he said, “I’m not disappearing.”

Amy Roeder

Photos: Kent Dayton; Department of Nutrition, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health