Flashback Friday: U of M professor's key role in landmark Surgeon General report on smoking in 1964

Surgeon General Luther Terry speaks at the press conference announcing the findings of the advisory committee on smoking and health in 1964. Photo: U.S. National Library of Medicine
Surgeon General Luther Terry speaks at the press conference announcing the findings of the advisory committee on smoking and health in 1964.

January 11, 2019 11:48 AM

Fifty-five years ago this week, the landmark 1964 report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States on smoking and health was released to the public.

Though not the first such warning outlining the health risks of smoking, it was certainly the most detailed and impactful, leading eventually to warning labels on cigarettes and other tobacco products, as well as a ban on the advertisement of such products on radio and television.

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It also - apparently - had a profound impact on the personal behavior of at least one of the committee members: Dr. Leonard M. Schuman, who led the Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health from 1954-83 where he established the first doctoral epidemiology program and the first summer epidemiology continuing education program in the nation.

All told, Schuman served on more than 40 national committees and advisory boards over his long career, which included work on the original polio vaccine trials in the 1950s.

However, one of Schuman's former students said it was his work on the advisory committee on smoking - which began meeting in November 1962 and released its findings on Jan. 11, 1964 - that changed his own activities.

"He started on that panel as an active smoker," said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a Regents professor and the director of the university's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. "But by the time it was done, he'd resolved to quit."

Osterholm still recalls the impact that Schuman - who died at age 92 in 2005 - had in the classroom.

"He could have won an Academy Award for his lecture ability," he recalled. "He was a large man with very white, brilliant long hair and a deep, booming voice. And he'd wear his lab coat to class every day. I've come in contact with hundreds and hundreds of professors over the course of my career. But he was in the top one or two of lecturers that I've ever been around."

Of course, Schuman's work nationally provided a deep well of knowledge and experience from which to draw on with his students.

"He was really one of the giants in the country in his field, especially in the 1950s and '60s," Osterholm said. "He was well-recognized."

It was Schuman's work on the smoking advisory committee - a panel of 10 experts who reported to then-Surgeon General Luther Terry - for which he may be best remembered.

Among the findings of the report, which were said to have been released on a Saturday to minimize their impact on the stock market, was that cigarette smoking was responsible for a 70 percent increase in the mortality rate of smokers over non-smokers. It also pointed to smoking as a key cause of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other medical conditions.

It helped lead to an increased awareness of smoking and the health risks associated with it - an awareness that continues to have an impact on public policy to this day.

Schuman continued on in his work at the University of Minnesota and in 1984, the Leonard M. Schuman Award for Excellence in Teaching was established to honor his teaching record.

The award recognizes School of Public Health faculty who "are particularly outstanding teachers in the art of conveying to their students the stimulation and interest in subject matter which is at the core of the teaching functions at all great universities."

"He took tremendous pride in his work on that committee," Osterholm said. "It really was a groundbreaking report. Terry headed up the committee and they were great friends. So I think it provided him the chance to work with colleagues he respected while at the same time doing work that had a huge impact when it came to national health.

"He had been a prominent, active and productive epidemiologist even before that. And he'd be well-remembered even if he hadn't been part of the committee. But that really did end up becoming a monumental part of his legacy." 

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