Obituary: Dr. Katherine Detre / Renowned epidemiologist taught at Pitt

Died Jan. 24, 2006

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Dr. Katherine Detre, a renowned epidemiologist who spearheaded large-scale research projects that have influenced medical treatment and practice, died yesterday due to complications of liver cancer. She was 79.

Since 1992, Dr. Detre was a distinguished professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

Later this year, she would have celebrated a half-century of marriage to Dr. Thomas Detre, former senior vice chancellor for health sciences at Pitt.

She "significantly advanced the cause of human health and set a standard of achievement that inspired her colleagues, here and around the world," said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg.

Dr. Detre was the principal investigator of a 40-site, seven-year study to ascertain how best to treat people with Type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease. The project began in 2000 with a $52.2 million grant from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It was one of the largest research awards in the university's history.

"I admired her and she deserved every accolade," said longtime friend Dr. Patrice Nickens, leader of cardiovascular medicine in the institute's division of heart and vascular diseases. "She was a super researcher but also a superior individual."

In 1980, Dr. Detre founded the public health school's Epidemiology Data Center, which now employs more than 120 people and provides expertise for more than 60 medical research projects and patient registries.

She held fast to the principle that a medical therapy is proven to work only when it has been rigorously tested, said Sheryl Kelsey, who took over when Dr. Detre left the post of data center director in 2005.

Dr. Detre was featured last year in a National Library of Medicine exhibit about women in medicine.

"Extraordinary intellectual energy, creativity, wisdom, bigness of spirit, civility and generosity toward all" were some of her many gifts, but "her greatest strength was in leadership, especially the governance and conduct of science," said Dr. Arthur Levine, Pitt's senior vice chancellor for health sciences.

In 1992, Dr. Detre was named an honorary fellow of the American College of Cardiology in recognition of her pioneering cardiovascular research. She was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 2003.

Katherine Maria Dreschler was born and grew up in Budapest, Hungary, a member of a lower-middle-class Jewish family, said her son, Dr. John Detre, of Philadelphia. Her father was a fabric salesman. He and her older brother were killed in the Holocaust.

She obtained false identification cards for herself and her mother, lived in a convent pretending to be Catholic, and worked as a street car conductor, her son said. She attended Budapest's Pazmany Peter Medical School.

"When I learned of the torture and loss of my closest family members during the Nazi era, all I could do was bury my head in the textbooks," Dr. Detre said in 2001 lecture.

She escaped the communist goverment that followed Nazi occupation by sneaking across the Austrian border. An aid organization gave her the opportunity to go to Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, where she got her medical degree in 1952.

"She went to Canada, she didn't speak any English, she knew nothing of the habits or life," her son said. "She was a complete alien when she got there."

When she was about to begin practicing obstetrics and gynecology in Montreal, Dr. Thomas Detre, whom she knew in Hungary, persuaded her to join him at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where she earned master's and doctorate degrees in public health.

The Detres came to Pittsburgh in 1974 and her husband's star was soon on the rise. After their two sons had grown, she began to pursue her own professional interests in earnest.

"Most people know him for his power and stature, and for what he accomplished administratively," said their son, a neurologist. "In her case, it was for really her science and her commitment to truth and honesty in science."

"My brother and I have no ambitions to try to outdo our parents in achievement," he added, laughing. "It's only downhill from there. They're quite a pair."

He described his mother as a "warm, good-natured loving, funny, attractive, stylish person" who loved to cook and eat and "look good." He also noted that "she certainly did not look her age. She was almost 80 and she probably looked 60."

Dr. Detre also practiced what she researched.

"I grew up drinking skim milk and eating margarine instead of butter because [of] the studies she was involved in," her son said.

"Then it turned out margarine was worse for you!"

Despite her illness, Dr. Detre was working on projects until the Christmas holiday break. She had made no plans to retire and was "living to the hilt," as her son put it, until the day she was hospitalized.

In addition to her son and husband, Dr. Detre is survived by her son Tony Detre, of New York City.

A memorial service will be held at Heinz Chapel, Oakland, at a date to be determined.

Contributions to help establish a lectureship in Dr. Detre's memory may be made to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Department of Epidemiology, 130 De Soto St., Pittsburgh 15261.

Joe Fahy contributed to this report. Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at or 412-263-3858.


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