In memoriam: Rose Epstein Frisch, expert in women’s fertility

Rose Epstein Frisch

February 13, 2015 — Rose Epstein Frisch, an associate professor emerita of population sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a pioneer in elucidating the biological mechanisms of fertility and cancer in women, died January 30, 2015 in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Frisch’s discovery that the energy stored in body fat governs when a woman becomes fertile led to the discovery of leptin, the hormone that implements this biological pathway. The effect is that a woman’s being too lean, whether from malnutrition or intense exercise, leads to decreased fertility or even infertility. The mechanism, overlooked by demographers and the medical community, has far-reaching implications for policies for alleviating hunger across the world. In related work, Dr. Frisch demonstrated the relationship between early athletic activity and later-life cancer.

“Dr. Frisch’s studies were visionary and set in motion a chain of discoveries that led to a much better understanding of women’s health,” said Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, where Dr. Frisch worked for decades. “What also was remarkable was that this was accomplished during a period when most women scientists struggled to have their work recognized.”

Born in the Bronx in 1918 to Louis and Stella (née Skolnick) Epstein, Dr. Frisch attended public school in New York City and, on the advice of her brother Lee Eastman and supported in part by the Leopold Schepp Foundation of New York, attended Smith College, graduating in 1939. There on a blind date she met a Princeton undergraduate majoring in physics, David H. Frisch, and that evening in her diary wrote, “I just met the man I am going to marry.”

Dr. Frisch earned a master’s degree in zoology at Columbia University in 1940, then, along with her husband, attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin. When World War II broke out, suddenly and in secrecy they were moved in early 1942 to the nascent effort to build an atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. There Dr. Frisch, who had finished her PhD at Madison in genetics, worked as a “computer” for the charismatic physicist Richard Feynman—helping crunch numbers and solve equations—and with the lab director’s wife, Kitty Oppenheimer.

After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the war ended, Dr. Frisch followed her husband to the Boston area, where he finished his PhD degree in nuclear physics and joined the physics faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and she raised children and tended her husband’s students and social life. In 1960, when her youngest child was in the 7th grade, Dr. Frisch went back to work in science.

According to Dr. Frisch’s son Henry Frisch, she—like a number of women who have made major contributions to science—both benefited and suffered from being a woman in the largely male higher education system. “Because she was free from the pressures of the normal academic path, she could follow her intellectual curiosity without concerns about getting tenure,” Frisch said. Being in Cambridge in academic circles led to her joining the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies as a research associate, where she had access to libraries and the world of medical research, statisticians, and demographers.

Frisch said his mother was paid at a low hourly rate. He recalled how, even later as a professor, she got a phone call from the National Institutes of Health that her salary on a grant application was supposed to be her annual salary and not her monthly salary, to which she replied, “That is my annual salary.” Frisch said that, to his mother, these were side issues. “What mattered was the science and her hypothesis of the body’s control of fertility in response to available energy sources,” he said.

In 1974 Dr. Frisch co-authored a paper that showed that a woman’s menstrual cycles can stop if she loses weight, often as little as 15 lbs. While the relation between “fatness” and fertility was well known to animal breeders, and is ensconced in folk traditions like the wedding feast, having a woman, and, in Dr. Frisch’s words, not only a woman but an older woman, talking about menstrual cycles at largely male conferences wasn’t well-received. Frisch said his mother told of a time when a distinguished male attendee at a conference aggressively challenged her during her presentation on the relationship of stored body fat and fertility. Afterwards he approached her at the podium to ask how much weight his anorexic daughter should gain to become pregnant.

Today the connection between fatness and fertility is now not only accepted, but the hormone responsible for the effect, leptin, has been discovered. Frisch said that there are babies named Rose by grateful mothers who were runners and who cut back their miles in order to become pregnant.

In 1994, Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University and colleagues discovered that leptin was the key hormone in the molecular mechanism behind the fat-fertility connection. “Long before the discovery of leptin, Dr. Frisch predicted that a factor from fat was necessary for maintaining normal reproductive capacity in females,” Friedman said. “That hypothesis depended on some intuitive clinical observations—such as that heavier girls often enter puberty earlier than thinner girls, and that adult women who lose weight or are extremely lean often stop menstruating altogether. With the identification of leptin decades later, Dr. Frisch’s hypothesis was confirmed. It’s remarkable that, working largely from clinical observations, Dr. Frisch was able to generate such a profoundly important hypothesis.”

Dr. Frisch was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the John Simon Memorial Guggenheim Foundation, and the Radcliffe Bunting Institute. Her detective work leading to the discovery is described in a book for the non-scientist: Female Fertility and the Body Fat Connection. She is also the author of a children’s book on nutrition, Plants that Feed the World, and an edited scientific volume, Adipose Tissue and Reproduction.

Dr. Frisch is survived by a daughter, Ruth Frisch Dealy, an artist in Providence, R.I.; a son, Henry Jonathan Frisch, a professor of physics at the University of Chicago; and four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Donations in Dr. Frisch’s name can be made to Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. A memorial service will be held at a later date.

Read a New York Times obituary about Rose Epstein Frisch: Rose E. Frisch, Scientist Who Linked Body Fat to Fertility, Dies at 96