Q&A: Charles Hennekens


As the joke goes in National Institutes of Health circles, aspirin is older than medicine itself—because God told Moses to take two tablets when he came down from the mountain.

But when it comes to pronouncements of biblical proportions involving aspirin, nothing tops the Physician’s Health Study published 24 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine. In that landmark report, a research team led by Dr. Charles Hennekens explained to the world that aspirin prevented a first heart attack.

The already-popular headache reliever and painkiller, first synthesized by Bayer Co., in 1897, would gain millions of new disciples. And Hennekens, who spent three decades at Harvard Medical School before joining the faculty at Florida Atlantic University eight years ago and becoming the college’s first Sir Richard Doll Research Professor, would become one of the most recognizable researchers on the planet.

According to ScienceWatch.com, the Cornell Medical School grad was the third-most-cited medical researcher in the world between 1995 and 2005. On its list of the scientists who have saved the most lives, ScienceHeroes.com ranks Hennekens No. 81—ahead of Jonas Salk and his polio vaccine. The site credits him with prolonging the lives of more than 1.1 million people.

Hennekens’ body of work, however, involves far more than an aspirin a day. His career-long dedication to preventive medicine has led to groundbreaking insights into everything from commonly used painkillers to cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Though he came to Boca in 2000 intent on semiretirement, Hennekens found plenty to pique his interest at FAU—even more so given the recent debut of the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the 136th medical school in the United States.

“It’s not just an exciting time for the medical school and FAU, but for Boca Raton and Palm Beach County,” says Hennekens, 69. “This has the potential to make a huge difference in the quality and quantity of life for people all over.”

What led you to Cornell Medical College?

My mother and father were children of immigrants from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. They met in Brooklyn, and they were uneducated working-class people.

You’re so influenced by your early-life experiences. My parents could have told me to become someone like Al Pacino in “The Godfather.” Instead, they instilled these values—work ethic, doing the best you can—that were just amazing. My father had Ghandi-like qualities; my mother, like Mother Teresa. When my mother’s sister died, my parents raised their daughter; when my father’s sister died, they raised her son.

All they wanted for me was to get the best education—and do something that would make a difference to society. I always felt so blessed in that sense.

On Aug. 14, 1959, my father dropped dead from a heart attack. He was in his 50s, and he was a very heavy smoker. I was 17.

Years later, I met Richard Doll [considered one of the 20th century’s leading epidemiologists], who was part of the research team that discovered the correlation between smoking and lung cancer. He invited me to Oxford to come work with him; he said he felt we were on the same page. I asked him how. He said, “Death is inevitable, but premature death is not. We want to increase the quantity and quality of people’s lives while they’re here.”

That resonated with me.

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