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Dothan native who linked excess iron to heart disease dies at 68

Dothan Eagle (AL)


May 17--Dr. Jerome Lee Sullivan III's theory linking excess stored iron in the body to heart disease started a revolution.

"He not only came up with the theory, he also came up with a way to actually prevent heart disease by donating blood regularly, particularly in men and post-menopausal women, because that gets rid of the excess iron," said Dr. Laura Geisel Sullivan, his wife of nearly 32 years.

The Dothan native, who was a physician, scientist and associate professor of pathology, died May 3 in Winter Park, Fla., of complications from diabetes. He was 68.

Sullivan first theorized the link between iron and heart disease more than 30 years ago when he was a junior faculty member at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He wondered why young women had so few cases of heart disease.

The most common guess at the time involved estrogen levels, but the young doctor theorized that iron levels were the cause.

Men begin to accumulate higher levels of iron after they stop growing, but women don't experience a similar rise because they lose iron-rich blood cells during their monthly menstrual cycle.

His wife, also a pathologist, said scientific studies published over the years back up his theory.

His paper, "Iron and the Sex Difference in Heart Disease," was first published in the June 13, 1981, issue of the British medical journal The Lancet.

His wife said the first confirmatory research results from Finland appeared in the American medical journal Circulation and resulted in intense media interest. His photo and a lengthy article about his work appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 8, 1992, followed by a cover story in US News and World Report and a story in People magazine later that year.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, his wife said, and studies have shown that regular blood donors have a reduced risk of heart disease.

"Red blood cells are just packed with iron, so when you donate blood you lose 250 milligrams of iron, which is a lot," she said.

Sullivan was born Oct. 13, 1944, in Dothan and graduated from Dothan High School in 1962. He was descended from several founding Dothan families. He was buried May 7 at Memory Hill Cemetery on Hartford Highway in Dothan following a funeral service at Byrd Funeral Home.

Sullivan earned his medical degree from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. from Florida State University. He served on the faculties of University of South Florida, Medical University of South Carolina, University of Florida and University of Central Florida.

His wife said his New York Times obituary will be published this weekend.

Sullivan was a leading researcher in his field and delivered numerous lectures in the United States and abroad. He was a quiet man most of the time, but would become very animated and blossomed when discussing his research and his theory.

His wife describes herself as short and talkative, but "he was a tall, dark and handsome Southern gentleman."

Because they shared professions and had a good marriage, their interests rubbed off on their children.

When one of their daughters was having a routine physical exam, she was explaining some symptoms she had to her doctor. A medical student who was there was amazed by her description, and the doctor told him "both her parents are doctors. That's why she talks like this."

"They (the children) picked up a lot at the dinner table," she said.

She feels adrift after losing her husband, colleague and friend, but values the years they spent together.

"He was a brilliant, brilliant man, and he used it in a way that helped others," she said.


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