Dr. Franz Halberg dies at age 93

Dr. Franz Halberg (file photo)

Roseville scientist made circadian rhythms his life study

Dr. Franz Halberg of Roseville, the man who coined the term “circadian rhythms” and studied their effects on the delivery of chemotherapy and the diagnosis of hypertension, died June 9, just short of his 94th birthday.

Halberg was considered the father of modern chronobiology, a term he coined for using science in tune with the daily, weekly and other rhythms of the body. He also founded the Halberg Chronobiology Center at the University of Minnesota.

At an international symposium held in Shoreview to mark his 90th birthday, he discussed his life’s work and said each person has a built-in, 24-hour rhythm that can make the difference between the success and failure of a certain treatment.

Born in Romania, Halberg was a World Health Organization fellow in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School.  Then in 1949, he went to work at the University of Minnesota, where he studied circadian rhythms. In his research, he gave genetically similar mice the same drug dose, and for no apparent reason, some died while others lived. To figure out why, he did research on many variables, including time of day, where he found a link.

With further research, he indisputably linked the 24-hour rhythm with changes in blood variables, cell divisions, and resistance to drugs and radiation. He called this new field of study chronobiology.

Making a difference in people’s lives

Germaine Cornelissen of Roseville, co-director of the center, recalled the summer of 1975 when she went to work in his lab. To make up for the small stipend he could afford, he offered to pay for her meals if she would participate in one of his studies.

“The study consisted of eating a fixed army ration of 2,000 calories as a single daily meal either as breakfast or dinner. I respectfully declined. At the time, I had no idea of the importance timing nutrition could have (breakfast-only but not dinner-only was associated with weight loss), nor did I realize the merit of self-surveillance. Just ask Dan Wall and he will tell you how he came to carry a blood pressure monitor for a week!”

Wall said he got involved in the late 1990s when Cornelissen, his neighbor, approached him about wearing an ambulatory blood pressure monitor for a week to compare the readings with his circadian rhythms.

Wall, who at that time was Roseville mayor, had arranged to have the city purchase 10 ambulatory blood-pressure monitors so residents could monitor themselves and get early treatment for hypertension, but there were insurance issues and the program was dropped.

However, Wall’s program was picked up by cities in Japan and the Czech Republic, Halberg said at the symposium. “Nobody, including Dan Wall, the first in politics to embrace self-help for better and cheaper care, is a prophet in his hometown.”

Halberg’s two daughters use their father’s research in their work. Julia Halberg, vice president of global health and chief medical officer at General Mills put blood pressure and BMI machines in company locations and encouraged employees to participate in health programs, while Francine Halberg, a radiation oncologist, uses her father’s research findings in her work with breast cancer patients.

Decades ahead of his time

Franz Halberg received a lifetime achievement award from the National Institutes of Health and the highest award of the World Organization for Scientific Cooperation for outstanding service in the development of science and education.

In 1999 the city of Roseville issued a proclamation signed by Wall that every July 5 would be Franz Halberg Day for his contributions to the betterment of mankind.

‘I know extremely little about the science of chronobiology, circadian rhythm, blood pressure, stroke and the like,” Wall said. “What I do know is that Franz was dedicated to his work and was universally respected and honored for his accomplishments.

“His knowledge and his work were probably decades ahead of the times. I knew him to be a humanitarian who cared deeply about people and enhancing the quality of life,” Wall said.

At age 90, Halberg said, “We have much to learn, and with any issues in biology or medicine, rhythm must be taken into account.” At age 93, he was still active seven days a week in the Chronobiology Center.

A private memorial service was planned.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.

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