Dr Basil M. Rifkind, longtime chief of the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Lipid Metabolism Branch and director of the Lipid Research Clinics (LRC) Program, died on June 22, 2008 at age 73. He had Parkinson’s disease.
Basil grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of working class Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. He graduated first in his class at Glasgow University and, apart from one year as an NHLBI fellow, practiced internal medicine at Glasgow Royal Infirmary from 1960 to 1971. In 1971, Basil returned to NHLBI as a medical officer under Dr Robert Levy in the Lipid Metabolism Branch and, when Dr Levy became NHLBI Director, Basil replaced him as Branch Chief and project officer of the nascent LRC program, an ambitious multidisciplinary amalgam of basic and population research in lipid metabolism. At its core was the Coronary Primary Prevention Trial (CPPT), a 4000-patient randomized trial to test the “cholesterol hypothesis” that lowering high cholesterol could prevent clinical events in middle-aged men without prior clinical coronary disease.
Basil’s passion was to foster research in cholesterol metabolism and to bring that research to bear on public policy. Thus, his leadership role in the LRC program fit him like a glove. He subordinated his personal ambitions and ego to the success of this program and worked tirelessly on its behalf. Among a roster of LRC investigators that was a “Who’s Who” of the best and brightest in the field of lipid research, Basil was its heart and soul.
After the CPPT results were published in 1984, Basil was a prime force in shaping the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) and in forging the recommendations of the Adult Treatment Panel recommendations in 1987, 1992, and 2002 that translated the LRC results into clinical practice. When the statins came along as the 1980s ended, the efforts of Basil and his NCEP colleagues had already paved the way for their widespread adoption by making cholesterol a household word in the United States.
Basil relished debate and was an ardent and unabashed advocate of the LRC program in particular and lipid research in general. Though a warm and gentle man with a mischievous wit, Basil found little humor in those who took contrary positions for what he viewed as narrow technical or parochial reasons and missed “the big picture.” He was willing to go out on a limb for his vision of the potential of cholesterol lowering to save millions of lives, even when the evidence was less than overwhelming and the available treatments were unsatisfactory. Subsequent events have vindicated that vision. Near the end of his life, when trials using statin drugs had erased all doubt about the cholesterol hypothesis and had helped fuel a dramatic fall in heart attack rates, Basil took justifiable pride in the role he played in this remarkable success story.
Beyond his considerable professional accomplishments, Basil Rifkind was a literate, imaginative, and cultured man of far-ranging intellectual curiosity. He was a devoted husband, father, and grandfather and a wise and humane mentor. He dealt with Parkinson’s disease bravely and underwent numerous procedures to slow its progress. But gradually, grudgingly, he gave ground, first curtailing his public speaking and travel, then cutting back his professional responsibilities, and finally retiring in 2002. But even after his once robust Scottish brogue had diminished to a bare whisper and the simplest tasks had become an ordeal, he remained optimistic, and his mind remained sharp and active. We who were fortunate to know him and work with him will miss him greatly.
Dr. Rifkind is survived by Margaret, his wife of 48 years, and by three children and seven grandchildren.