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Lee W. Wattenberg 1921-2014

Known as the “father of chemoprevention,” Lee Wolff Wattenberg, MD, passed away on December 9, 2014, following complications from Parkinson’s disease at the age of 92.1 Dr. Wattenberg researched the potential of cancer prevention before the medical community believed cancer to be a preventable disease, and he isolated compounds in plants from the Brassicaceae (cabbage) family, garlic (Allium sativum, Amaryllidaceae), and coffee (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae) that inhibited the development of carcinogens.

Born in Manhattan, New York, on December 22, 1921, Dr. Wattenberg earned his bachelor’s degree from City College of New York and his medical degree from the University of Minnesota’s School of Medicine, where he taught for more than 60 years and earned the title of emeritus professor of laboratory medicine and pathology in 2005. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he joined his brother, physicist Albert Wattenberg, PhD, on the Manhattan Project (the top-secret United States government program to develop the first atomic bomb) as a junior biologist from 1944 to 1946. While working on the Project, he studied the effects of radiation on the human body, and later credited this position with piquing his interest in cancer prevention. Afterwards, he served in the army at the Walter Reed Hospital during the Korean War, pursuing research for the war effort.

In 1966, Dr. Wattenberg published “Chemoprophylaxis of carcinogenesis, a review” in Cancer Research, the journal of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR).2 This groundbreaking paper reviewed 36 years of animal studies and laid the framework for understanding how certain compounds effect carcinogenesis (i.e., the transformation of normal cells into cancerous cells) and introduced the term “chemoprophylaxis” — or medication for the purpose of preventing a disease.

“He is rightfully considered the conceptual father of the chemoprevention of cancer,” wrote Paul Talalay, MD, the John Jacob Abel Distinguished Service Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, “and played this role at a time when cancer was not considered a preventable disease” (email to M. Blumenthal, December 28, 2014).

Dr. Wattenberg investigated two primary categories of chemopreventative agents: synthetic compounds and dietary constituents. He found that the antioxidant food preservatives butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) could block many carcinogens and stabilize free radicals — which often are associated with the onset of cancer — in the body and showed that several varieties of Brassica oleracea including cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli inhibit the development of some carcinogens. In addition, Dr. Wattenberg isolated a compound in garlic that showed anti-cancer activity in animals as well as chemicals in coffee that could neutralize free radicals.

“There is no question in my mind that Wattenberg’s principal contributions to cancer prevention research were his more than a dozen papers (in the 1970s and 80s) showing that phenolic antioxidant food additives (e.g., BHA, BHT) prevented carcinogenesis in animals,” wrote Dr. Talalay (email to M. Blumenthal, January 2, 2015). “I designated this (in the literature) as the ‘Wattenberg Phenomenon’ as a tribute to him.” He also noted: “He later wholeheartedly embraced the idea of dietary prevention of cancer, but this followed the work of others (who isolated many phytochemicals that prevented carcinogenesis).”

Dr. Wattenberg’s innovations and research earned him many honors and accolades from the medical community. He served on the board of directors of AACR twice, from 1985 to 1988 and 1991 to 1994; as president of AACR from 1992 to 1993; as president of the American Histochemical Society in 1996; and, in 2013, he was elected as a Fellow of AACR Academy. The AACR awarded him with the AACR-American Cancer Society Award for Outstanding Contributions to Cancer Prevention in 1996 and the AACR Award for Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Prevention Research in 2010.

“Lee Wattenberg was an excellent scientist, a person of impeccable integrity, and someone who made major contributions to the new science of trying to develop drugs that would prevent cancer, especially its initiation by chemical carcinogens,” wrote Michael Sporn, MD, professor of pharmacology and medicine at the department of pharmacology of Dartmouth Medical School. “He had an extremely productive and influential career. He was greatly respected by all of his colleagues.”

Services for Dr. Wattenberg were held on December 12, 2014, at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Wattenberg is survived by Esther Wattenberg, his wife of 70 years; daughters Anne and Elizabeth Wattenberg; sons Mark and Binks; eight grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. He was preceded in death by his son Richard and his daughter Lynn Woolf.

—Hannah Bauman


  1. Martin D. Lee W. Wattenberg, who saw cancer fighters in foods, dies at 92. The New York Times. December 18, 2014. Available at: Accessed January 7, 2015.
  2. Wattenberg, LW. Chemoprophylaxis of carcinogenesis, a review. Cancer Res. 1966;26:1520-1526.