There is a great deal of evidence now that diet affects cancer risk. That connection wasn’t obvious, though, in the 1950s, when Buffalo-born researcher L. Saxon Graham began breaking new ground in cancer epidemiology. Over the next half-century, Graham contributed some of the most important research on diet and cancer.
Graham was among the first American researchers to examine this link. He died at his home in Orchard Park on May 19, 2012, after a brief illness. He was 90.
“He was a major figure in epidemiology,” says Jo Freudenheim, UB Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health (formerly SPM). “He started doing work at a time when people said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ His contributions showed that it was possible to measure diet and made people move forward and do research that needed to be done,” adds Freudenheim, whom Graham mentored when she came to UB as a post-doctoral fellow in 1987.
James Marshall, another former colleague of Graham’s, adds: “When Saxon began his research at Roswell Park, in the early 1950s, few suspected that diet was related to cancer. Today, almost everyone understands that it is.”
“They also understand that research on diet requires the study of large population samples. Modern interest in diet has been heavily influenced by Saxon’s research. He was not schooled in dietary research; he invented efficient survey methods for the study of diet in large population samples,” says Marshall, senior vice president for cancer prevention and population sciences at Roswell and a research professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health.
After receiving his bachelor’s degrees in history and English from Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1943, Graham served in the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps from 1944-46. He received both his master’s (1949) and PhD (1951) in sociology from Yale University.
Following teaching stints, Graham returned to Buffalo in 1956 to work at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, where he was promoted to principal scientist in 1965. He joined UB as a professional lecturer and full professor the following year.
In a video interview produced by the Center for the Arts shortly before his passing, Graham recalled his days as a researcher. “I was home one day in my library and I was wondering about the causes of cancer. And I wondered, ‘Why in heaven’s name hasn’t somebody studied diet?’”
Graham made an impact early on in his career at Roswell Park, where he developed a questionnaire the hospital distributed to patients to learn more about their diet and smoking habits. “I could see how it could be improved and it was lengthened considerably as a result. And of course, what you might suspect we found, was that those who used chewing tobacco had the higher risk of oral cancer. At that point in the scientific community, these people couldn’t see how epidemiology could come up with any answers,” he said.
A member of the Department of Epidemiology and Environmental Health for more than three decades, Graham served as chair from 1981 to 1991, when he retired. He received an honorary doctorate in science from UB in 1996. In addition, Graham was a founding director, and an honorary fellow, of the American College of Epidemiology, and was past president of the Society for Epidemiologic Research.
As significant as Graham was as a researcher, his legacy lives on through the many students whose academic lives he impacted. “He gave me all kinds of opportunities as a post-doc and then as a junior faculty member,” Freudenheim says. “He did that with lots of people. I know my experience wasn’t unique.”
She described Graham as a “very warm, loving person,” but noted his seriousness toward scholarly activities. “He was also very critical. If he noticed a mistake or flaw in your dissertation, he expected you to fix it and not make that mistake again.”
Marshall recalls when he was completing his dissertation at UCLA and was invited to come to Buffalo for an interview with Graham. “When my mentor at UCLA found out that I had been offered the SUNY job, he told me he was finished writing recommendation letters for me. He said there was no way I would do better than to have a position with Saxon Graham.”
In all, Graham authored nearly 200 scholarly articles, and contributed influential reviews and editorials to some of the world’s most renowned medical journals. He named his students or junior colleagues as first authors on more than half of these articles.
“One would like to think that his papers are his legacy, but I don’t think they’re half as important as the students,” Graham said in the interview, noting that he mentored more than two-dozen PhD candidates during his tenure.
“I’m so happy about that. It’s just a lovely thing to look back on.”