In memoriam: Dimitrios Trichopoulos, ‘giant’ in cancer epidemiology

Dimitrios Trichopoulos

December 2, 2014

Dear Members of the HSPH Community:

It is with much sadness that I write to inform you of the death of Dimitrios Trichopoulos, who was Vincent L. Gregory Professor of Cancer Prevention and Professor of Epidemiology, and a past chair of the Department of Epidemiology. He died on December 1, 2014. He was 75.

Dimitrios was an outstanding scientist and teacher for more than four decades in the field of cancer epidemiology and prevention. He published more than 1,000 scientific papers, continually staking out scientific frontiers—from seminal research linking secondhand smoke from cigarettes with an increased risk of lung cancer, and hepatitis B virus and tobacco smoking to an increased risk of primary liver cancer, to findings documenting that surgically induced and early natural menopause reduced breast cancer risk. Outside of the field of cancer, his paper linking psychological stress after an earthquake in Athens to increased risk of cardiac death was included in a 1997 list in The Lancet of 27 papers deserving to form a core canon of medical literature that every health professional should read.

Dimitrios’ research career included several significant “firsts”: He was first, with a 1990 paper in The Lancet, to propose that in utero exposures play a major role in breast cancer causation. He also was first in 1981, along with an independent paper published a few days later, to report that secondhand smoke increases the risk of lung cancer. Along with Brian MacMahon, then chair of HSPH’s Department of Epidemiology, Dimitrios looked at 51 nonsmoking women hospitalized with lung cancer in Greece, and compared them with age-matched women hospitalized for other problems. The researchers determined that the cancer patients were significantly more likely to have been exposed to their husband’s cigarettes. Follow-up studies went on to confirm the risks of smoke inhalation by children in smoking households or in nonsmokers who live nearby.

“Dimitrios was indeed a giant among giants in the field of epidemiology,” said Michelle Williams, chair of HSPH’s Department of Epidemiology and Stephen B. Kay Family Professor of Public Health. “He will be remembered most for his generosity, sincerity, and his enduring commitment to teaching and mentoring legions of students and junior faculty from across the globe.”

A native of Greece, Dimitrios studied at the University of Athens Medical School, where he earned an M.D. in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1971. He earned a S.M. at Harvard School of Public Health in 1968 and held several teaching appointments at the School over the next two decades (lecturer, 1969–1970; visiting professor, 1981–1985; adjunct, 1988–1989).

Dimitrios was appointed a full professor in the Department of Epidemiology in 1989. He took on the role of chair that same year, serving until 1996. Initiatives under his leadership included a series of collaborations with investigators now at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. In 1993, he was named Vincent L. Gregory Professor of Cancer Prevention, and also began a four-year appointment as director of the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention.

Dimitrios also was a Member of the Athens Academy and president of the Hellenic Health Foundation in Greece. He held teaching appointments at the University of Athens Medical School and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden.

His awards and distinctions are many and include honorary doctorates, the Brinker International Award for Breast Cancer Clinical Research, Harvard School of Public Health’s Julius Richmond Award (2004) and Alumni Award of Merit (2009), and the Medal of Honor of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, World Health Organization.

Dimitrios is survived by his wife Antonia, and many colleagues, students, and friends — and their children, for whom Dimitrios held a special place in his heart.

“Dimitrios remarkably retained his creativity and work ethic until the end of his life. Just three weeks ago he was here in Boston pushing the work forward and radiating enthusiasm as always,” said Dean for Academic Affairs David Hunter, his fellow Vincent Gregory Professor and his successor as director of the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention.

Lorelei Mucci, associate professor of epidemiology, said of her mentor and friend of 19 years, “Dimitrios was one of the most spectacular and influential people I have ever met.  He was a pioneer and innovator in cancer research, an outstanding intellect, a magnanimous mentor, a brilliant teacher, and a generous friend. Spending an hour with Dimitrios in the classroom or in his office was like having the universe opened to you with all of its possibilities. He was a teacher and mentor to literally thousands of cancer researchers around the globe, and his legacy will be for us to carry forward his memory, his passion for scientific discovery, and his generosity of spirit.”

Julio Frenk, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Dean of the Faculty, Harvard School of Public Health
T & G Angelopoulos Professor of Public Health and International Development,
Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School

Read a condolence letter from the European Research Council