Barry Wood won 10 varsity letters from 1929 to 1931 as one of Harvard’s greatest athletes ever, and was the last Harvard player to be named All-American in football at the time when Harvard football teams played the University of Texas, University of Michigan and some of the other best teams in the country. He was such an outstanding football player that his picture was on the cover of Time Magazine on November 23, 1931, after Harvard defeated Army 14-13. The accompanying article said, “Even the Boston and Cambridge policemen root for him.”
Wood was Harvard’s quarterback, drop kicker and defensive back, their first line center on the hockey team, a consistent 300 hitter, first baseman and shortstop on the baseball team, and a nationally-ranked tennis player who played with Bill Tilden on the American Davis Cup tennis team while still an undergraduate. His classmates loved him and named him captain of both the football and hockey teams, class president as a freshman, student council president, and First Marshal of his senior class. He was far more than just an athlete; he was graduated, summa cum laude, at the top of his class, was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and published scientific papers as a Harvard undergraduate.
After college, he never slowed down. He went on to become a world-famous microbiology researcher who wrote more than 125 papers and many books, including a textbook on microbiology. In 1971, at age 60, he died suddenly of a heart attack. I remember him as 6′ 2″ tall, still athletic, weighing less than 170 pounds, never being overweight and never smoking. He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.
Medical Career and Early Death
Wood’s father was a medical doctor, and a Harvard graduate and trustee. Wood was born in 1910 in Milton, Massachusetts and attended the exclusive Milton Academy. As an undergraduate at Harvard, in addition to his sports activities, he wrote a widely-acclaimed research paper on white blood cells. In 1932, he married Lelie Hutchins, who had been president of her class, played varsity hockey, sang in the choir and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at what was then the most prestigious women’s college, Vassar. During their marriage, she earned her D. Sci in bacteriology, taught at Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and was good enough to play competitive tennis against her husband.
Wood went to Johns Hopkins Medical School, was graduated in 1936, and became a National Research Council Fellow at Harvard, working with some of the world’s leading bacteriologists. He wrote one of the first papers on penicillin as an antibiotic and wrote ground-breaking papers on pneumonia, how white blood cells eat invading bacteria, and how the body responds to infections with fever. In 1940, at age 30, he became a professor at Johns Hopkins and two years later, at age 32, he was appointed head of the Department of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and physician-in-charge at Barnes Hospital. In 1955, at age 45, he went back to Johns Hopkins as vice president of the university and hospital, and professor of microbiology. At age 49, he gave up these titles to become chairman of the department of microbiology at Hopkins.
In 1969 at age 59, he suffered a massive heart attack, was incapacitated and spent many months recovering. In 1970, his wife died. On March 9, 1971, he flew to Boston to attend a dinner honoring Harvard president Nathan Pusey, and he died of another massive heart attack.
He Had Done Everything Right
How could a healthy man with a healthful lifestyle die of a heart attack at the very young age of 60? I was at Johns Hopkins in the early 1960s where I often went to hear him speak. It appeared that his lifestyle was beyond reproach; he:
• had exercised vigorously all his life,
• was always tall and slender,
• was never overweight,
• had never smoked,
• never took more than an occasional drink, and
• did not work with toxic substances.
However, his father had died of a heart attack at an even younger age, so Wood probably had a genetic condition that increased his risk for a heart attack. We have no way to know the cause of Wood’s heart attack, but I do know that since 1971, scientists have made many breakthroughs in learning the causes of heart attacks and how to prevent and treat them.
What Is A Heart Attack?
Heart attacks are not caused by narrowed arteries leading to the heart. They are caused by a sudden complete obstruction of a heart artery, which completely deprives a part of the heart muscle of oxygen. Usually a plaque breaks off from the inner lining of an artery leading to the heart, the area bleeds and a clot forms. Then the clot extends to block completely all blood flow to a part of the heart muscle and the heart muscle dies from lack of oxygen. When heart muscle is deprived completely of blood-borne oxygen for longer than 30 minutes, it starts to die. After 6-8 hours, the oxygen-starved part of the heart muscle is dead and will be replaced permanently by scar tissue that cannot contract to circulate blood through the body. When blood flow to the heart is blocked, the heart can start to beat irregularly or stop beating completely. If the heart is damaged enough to beat irregularly or stop pumping blood to the brain, the brain can die in just six minutes. Since the brain controls breathing, the death of brain cells can stop you from breathing and the brain then becomes irreversibly damaged.
What We Have Learned Since 1971
Today we have a better understanding of the risk factors for heart attacks, and many more effective treatments:
• Inflammation: We now know that heart attacks are linked to chronic inflammation (an overactive immune system) and clots. Your immune system is supposed to be good for you because it makes cells and proteins that kill invading germs. However, if your immune system stays active all the time, it can use these same cells and proteins to punch holes in arteries that eventually cause plaques to form on the inner linings of arteries, which can break off and bleed, leading to a heart attack as described above. In 1971 we had no dependable drugs to reduce inflammation, but today we have statins which reduce both cholesterol and inflammation, and several other drugs to block inflammation, such as Canakinumab. We also have a better understanding of anti-inflammatory lifestyle habits that help to prevent heart attacks.
• High LDL cholesterol and small lipid particle size: If you have high blood cholesterol, it’s best to try to lower it with a healthful diet and exercise. If you need medication, your doctor will probably recommend statins. We also now have selective drugs to prevent you from absorbing cholesterol and PCSK9 inhibitors such as evolocumab, which are monoclonal antibodies that help to prevent your liver from making cholesterol (N Engl J Med, August 20, 2020;383:775-776).
• High blood pressure: A healthful diet and lifestyle are the first steps for lowering high blood pressure. We also have several new drugs to help lower high blood pressure.
• Diabetes (a major cause of heart attacks): The primary treatment for diabetes or pre-diabetes is lifestyle changes that include just about everything that helps to reduce inflammation: an anti-inflammatory diet (loaded with plants and restricting mammal meat, sugar-added foods and fried foods, and all drinks with sugar), exercise, and avoidance of smoke and alcohol.
• Clotting: Anticoagulants such as heparin or warfarin reduce clotting. Antiplatelet drugs, such as aspirin, help to prevent blood cells called platelets from clumping together to form clots. Caution: Be aware that all of these drugs will cause bleeding with the slightest trauma.
• A high resting heart rate (over 70 beats per minute): This is a sign of a weak heart that can be treated with an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, medication, and a program of supervised and controlled exercise
If you have any of these major risk factors or a family history of heart attacks, check with your doctor and learn how to improve your lifestyle to help prevent heart attacks.
William Barry Wood, Jr.
May 4, 1910 – March 9, 1971