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Philip E. Sartwell, 91, noted Hopkins epidemiologist


Dr. Philip E. Sartwell, a renowned Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist who alerted women to the side effects of oral contraceptives, died Friday of Alzheimer's disease at his Marblehead, Mass., home. He was 91 and had lived in Homeland.

In pioneering studies at the School of Hygiene and Public Health, he also investigated the effectiveness of flu vaccines and the danger to health professionals from radiation exposure.

As early as 1958, he wrote to the editor of The Sun to warn of the link between smoking tobacco and cancer. "The advertising by tobacco companies should be scrutinized for possible misrepresentation of the facts," he wrote in a lengthy letter.

As an epidemiologist and head of the epidemiology department from 1954 to 1970, he studied the effects of diseases and medicines on populations, as opposed to individuals.

"He was the quintessential gentleman," said Dr. George Comstock, a Hopkins public health professor and former student. "He was considerate, polite, courteous and self-effacing."

He often allowed other colleagues -- or younger staff members -- to place their names at the top of the research he conducted.

When he was interviewed at the time of his retirement from Hopkins in 1973, he told a Sun reporter: "Don't make it too glowing; just [soft-pedal] what I've done; make sure you mention my colleagues."

In the 1950s, he and his department conducted research on the then-new polio vaccine shots, which were being given at Baltimore public schools.

When the Asian flu swept the country in fall 1957, Dr. Sartwell studied the effectiveness of a vaccine in preventing the disease. His study came to the conclusion that the vaccine, while not totally preventing the flu, did prevent it in a substantial number of people.

In the mid-1960s, as oral contraceptives were coming into use, he linked their use to the vascular problems some women experienced. The study received national attention.

He served as editor and chairman of the American Journal of Epidemiology and was a contributor to the New England Journal of Medicine.

He was named the first president of the Maryland Public Health Association when it was formed in 1955.

Born in Salem, Mass., he was a 1932 graduate of Boston University's school of medicine. In 1938, he received his master's degree from Harvard University's School of Public Health. He moved to Baltimore in 1947 as a Johns Hopkins assistant professor.

During World War II, he served in the surgeon general's office with the Army.

In 1936, he married Harriett Coffin, who later became a Johns Hopkins Carry-On Shop volunteer. She died in 1989.

A memorial service will be held at noon Saturday at 36-a Cloutman's Lane, Marblehead, Mass.

He is survived by a son, Peter Sartwell of Melrose, Mass.; a daughter, Nancy S. Walker of Marblehead; four grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

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