Al Alberts, Key Figure in the "Cholesterol Revolution," Dies at 87

Alfred W. Alberts, a former Merck biochemist who made significant contributions to the field of cardiovascular medicine, died in Fort Collins, Colo. He was 87.

Alberts was a key figure in the “cholesterol revolution” that started in the late 20th century. High levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with a greater risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Born in New York City in 1931, Alberts graduated from Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in zoology. In 1953, he married his high school sweetheart, Helene (“Sandy”) Cuba, before serving two years in the Army, where his duties included work in the Army labs.

After receiving an honorable discharge from the Army, Alberts returned to school on the GI Bill to study cell biology. He began his graduate work at the University of Kansas before transferring to the University of Maryland, where he became an “A.B.D.” – meaning he completed “all but the dissertation.” The University of Maryland later awarded Alberts an honorary degree.

When his GI Bill benefits ran out in 1959, Alberts left school to support his family. He started his career as a lab technician at the National Institutes of Health, working under Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, who was serving as a research physician at the time and who ultimately became the chairman and CEO of Merck.

In 1966, Alberts joined Vagelos at Washington University in St. Louis to do research in the Biochemistry Department. During his time there, Alberts distinguished himself both in the lab and as an advisor to many students and post-doctoral fellows in the department – so much so, in fact, that he was promoted to associate professor with tenure despite not having completed his Ph.D.

Alberts spent a decade at Washington University before joining Merck in 1975 as Director, Department of Biochemical Regulation. Alberts led pioneering research conceived by Vagelos to apply new biochemical approaches to drug discovery.

“That was the beginning of the cholesterol revolution, and none of it would have been possible without Al,” said Vagelos. “He was just terrific at science and research, and he never wavered.”

Colleagues remember watching Alberts, during the brief breaks in his experiments, dashing to the Merck library to catch up on the latest scientific literature, even finding translations of foreign journals.

“Al’s steadfast pursuit of science has permanently changed the course of coronary heart disease and improved the health of many people,” said Ken Frazier, Merck’s current chairman and CEO.

Drs. Michael Brown and Joseph Goldstein, who received the 1985 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on cholesterol regulation, credit Alberts for his impact.

“We did the basic science but as physicians, we were very anxious to see that our work would one day benefit patients,” Brown said.

A mentor to a number of aspiring scientists over the years, Alberts was known at Merck for his humility and kindness. Despite his extraordinary achievements, former colleagues say that he was always more interested in helping others than promoting himself.

Even though “Al ate and slept science,” according to his wife Sandy, their 64 years together were filled with joy. In addition to his wife, Alberts is survived by his three children, Heather Alberts (Robert Gottlieb), Mitch Alberts, and Eli Alberts (Julie Wang), and two grandchildren, Nellie Gottlieb and Jacob Gottlieb.