Wilmer Nichols has done a lot in his lifetime. He grew up working on farms as the son of sharecroppers, joined the Navy at 17 and served in the Philippines during the Korean War. He earned a general equivalency diploma and, later, a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics, worked for NASA on the first manned flight into space as well as the Gemini and Apollo flights, and co-edited four editions of “McDonald’s Blood Flow in Arteries,” a well-known hemodynamics textbook.
This week Nichols, the director of basic cardiovascular research at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine from 1976 to 2002 and now an adjunct professor of medicine, will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from ARTERY, the Association for Research in Arterial Structure and Physiology.
John Cockcroft, M.B., Ch.B., ARTERY’s president and a professor of cardiology at Wales Heart Research Institute in Cardiff, will present the award to Wilmer on Friday at ARTERY 9, the organization’s yearly meeting. This year the meeting takes place at Queens’ College in Cambridge, England.
Nichols, who has been an ARTERY member for four years, is the second recipient of the award, which was instituted last year. Michel Safar, M.D., a cardiologist in Paris, received the award in 2008.
Nichols said he did not expect to receive the award this year.
“I was surprised when I was asked to be this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award,” he said, “because there are so many other well-qualified people out there to receive the award.”
Cockcroft said Nichols was selected to receive the award because “he has been one of the leading figures in the world in terms of research into large arterial function, especially stiffening of the large arteries.
“Over his lifetime he has made many contributions that have led to significant changes to the way that physicians view the cardiovascular system and in the way that clinicians assess cardiovascular risk,” Cockcroft said.
Nichols developed an interest in cardiovascular physiology and arterial function studies while working as an engineer for NASA.
“The first Apollo spacecrafts had problems with high-frequency noise, so they were unsafe for astronaut flight,” Nichols said.
Nichols and his colleagues used a Fourier series analysis, a mathematical technique that he reasoned could be used to study the human heartbeat as well.
Nichols went on to earn his Ph.D. from the University of Alabama Medical School under Donald A. McDonald, a pioneer in hemodynamics. McDonald had similar ideas about the use of Fourier techniques in hemodynamics and is the original author of “McDonald’s Blood Flow in Arteries.”
Since earning his Ph.D., Nichols has helped develop heart and circulation models and worked in numerous countries, including Australia, the Netherlands and England. He was one of several pioneers of the idea that hypertension is more accurately diagnosed through systolic blood pressure, instead of diastolic pressure, as once universally believed.
Nichols worked with Michael O’Rourke, a cardiologist in Australia, who developed a system that uses radial artery tonometric pressure tracings to monitor central aortic pressure without invading the body.
“That’s the pressure that the heart pumps against,” Nichols explained. “It’s not the pressure in the arm, but it’s the pressure right outside the heart.”
This measurement is more helpful, he said.
“There have been at least three large clinical trials that have shown that … central aortic pressure is better than brachial pressure for predicting cardiovascular risk and also outcome,” Nichols said, adding that he was not directly involved with these studies.
Nichols is currently involved with two other clinical trials at UF involving radial artery pressure tracing.