Skip to Content

Arnold School of Public Health

  • Steven Blair

A legend in life and beyond. Arnold School community remembers the life of Steven N. Blair

November 14, 2023 | Erin Bluvas,

The unexpected passing of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Steven N. Blair in October has had a widespread impact on Arnold School faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends. A member of both the Department of Exercise Science and the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, his pioneering work in the field of exercise epidemiology reached far beyond the University of South Carolina and spanned six decades. However, the prolific Blair accomplished more than most could in a century-long career, resulting in many of the highest honors in the fields of kinesiology and public health.

“According to his brother, Aaron Blair, Dad excelled in so many sports growing up but especially football and basketball,” says Blair’s daughter Ann Blair Kennedy, who followed in his footsteps with a doctoral degree from the Arnold School and a health-focused career as a clinical associate professor at the USC School of Medicine Greenville. “His uncle encouraged him to go to college to escape the midwestern weather faced by our family of farmers, and he planned to become a football and track coach. The rest is history.” 

Blair followed that passion by studying physical education at Kansas Wesleyan University in his home state and then sticking around for a year to teach and coach. Next, he followed his mentor to Indiana University to complete master’s and doctoral degrees in the field – finally making the move to USC in 1966.

During his first tenure at the Arnold School – which spanned 18 years – Blair worked his way up from instructor to professor and established the Human Performance Laboratory. In the mid-1970s, he laid the foundation for what has become one of the nation's strongest exercise science programs by helping USC secure NIH funding to participate in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (the university's largest grant at the time). This funding provided the resources to enhance the laboratory facilities and grow the research staff expertise for exercise testing and programming that helped develop an internationally recognized graduate program.

He also spent two years as a postdoctoral scholar in preventive cardiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine where he met his long-term mentor Ralph Paffenbarger. By this point, Blair had distinguished himself as an expert in physical fitness and one of the fathers of exercise epidemiology.

Steve and Jane Blair
Steve Blair hiking with his wife of 58 years, psychologist Jane Blair.

In 1980, he was recruited to lead The Cooper Institute (first as director and later as president and CEO) and selected as a Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor at the University of Bristol. At the Institute, his groundbreaking work on the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study demonstrated that cardiorespiratory fitness reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and all-cause mortality.  

With many more accolades to come, Blair received more than 30 major honors during this time, including alumni awards from his alma maters and many others from professional, scientific and service organizations. He also led the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Kinesiology as president and received honorary doctoral degrees from three universities (he would receive a fourth in 2017). In 1996, Blair served as senior scientific editor of the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health, a landmark publication establishing the role of physical activity as a public health priority in the U.S.

After more than two decades with The Cooper Institute, Blair returned to the Arnold School in 2006 to the delight of colleagues and students. He already had more than 300 scientific papers to his name – though he had well over 800 more to contribute before reaching his career total of nearly 1200.

Blair was thrilled to return to his original academic home and be closer to his children and grandchildren. Meanwhile, his research and influence continued to grow. Famously quoted as saying, “The best exercise is the one you will do consistently,” Blair is credited with providing scientific evidence for and spreading the message that any exercise is better than none. Individuals and populations can receive benefits from any type of movement.

The worldwide community of exercise scientists recognized his contributions to physical fitness, body composition and chronic disease with invitations for lectures and collaborations. Every year brought additional honors, including the Folksam Epidemiology Prize (Karolinska Institute), the Population Science Research Prize (American Heart Association), Bloomberg Manulife Prize (McGill University), Phillip Noel Baker Award (international Council of Sport Science and Physical Education), INSPIRE Award (International Council on Active Aging), Mikey Stunkard Lifetime Achievement Award (The Obesity Society), and Lifetime Achievement Award (President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition). At home, Blair was recognized with the Arnold School’s James E. Clyburn Public Health and Health Disparities Award and the USC Educational Foundation Award for Research in Health Sciences.

Steve Blair
Steve Blair spent most of his 60-year career at USC.

By the end of his career – which only arrived with his passing – Blair’s impact was clearer than ever. Thompson Reuters had named him one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds and Clarivate Analytics had included him on their list of most highly cited researchers – both multiple times. But Blair’s true impact goes beyond the $30 million in extramural funding he garnered to drive the fields of physical fitness and exercise epidemiology forward. It goes beyond the hundreds of publications and even the clinical, scientific and policy advancements he helped inform to improve public health on a global scale.

No, his biggest impact is likely the legacy he has created through the students and colleagues he has taught and mentored. Blair has inspired several generations of public health professionals and scientists to push the field forward even further. Plus, he was an incredibly nice guy who everyone liked and admired.

Well beyond the Arnold School, former students, colleagues and admirers have shared their memories of Blair and how he has changed their lives. The American College of Sports Medicine and Human Kinetics Journals both posted tributes on their websites. Videos shared by people touched by Blair’s life can be found here and sent to

Kennedy and her mother, Blair’s wife, Jane Blair, have established an Endowed Fellowship at the Arnold School – the Steven N. Blair Horse Collar Endowed Fellowship Fund – for those who would like to contribute in his memory.

I sometimes wonder what I might be doing if I hadn’t moved to USC to work with Steve in 2007. I truly believe that Steve has profoundly changed my life. During the past 16 years, I have received a Ph.D. degree under Steve’s mentorship and achieved tenure while publishing 170 peer-reviewed papers with him. I cherish every moment, big or small, we spent together. Steve is like a father figure to me and opened so many doors not only for me, but also for so many others. I will miss him forever.

Xuemei Sui, Associate Professor of Exercise Science
Mei Sui and Steve Blair

Steve was my academic advisor for my master’s degree, many years ago during his first tenure at USC. (Of course, at that time I only ever dared to refer to him as Dr. Blair!) As a newly-minted master’s student who had no idea what she was doing, I found him to be very intimidating. I knew that he was famous, and incredibly smart, and I was extremely starstruck. Now that I’ve known him as a colleague for many years, and as a truly nice and kind person, my earlier intimidation seems quite laughable! But Steve was truly knowledgeable and accomplished, and I learned so many valuable lessons from him, including ones I use to this day. The most important one for my career now is that he taught me how to read a research paper with a magnifying glass and a fine tooth comb, finding the weaknesses, asking questions, and proposing ways to strengthen it. The research seminar class in which he taught those skills is one of the best I’ve ever taken, and I still use those lessons today.

Gaye Christmus, Pre-award Grants Manager and Technical Editor
Gaye Christmus

I was introduced to Dr. Steve Blair by Michael Pollock in the spring of 1975 while I was at Kenneth Cooper’s Institute for Aerobic Research in Dallas Texas. In years to follow, I would bump into Steve at various professional meetings, and while I was in my doctoral program at the University of Toledo in Ohio, Steve would always greet me with encouraging words to publish and be the best I could be. I was most fortunate to join the University of South Carolina faculty in the Spring of 1982. Steve Blair, Russ Pate, Dianne Ward, Harriett Williams, and John Ivy were five individuals that mentored me through my career. Steve always encouraged me to write grants and publish. I came to know Steve as a wonderful mentor. He helped me develop professionally, but more importantly, Steve became more than a mentor. He and his wife, Jane, became good friends to my wife Linda and I. Our profession will miss Steve, the University of South Carolina will miss him, the Exercise Science Department will miss him, and I will miss my friend, Steve.

Larry Durstine, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Exercise Science
Larry Durstine

I joined the faculty at USC as a young assistant professor at a time when Steve had already established his highly productive research career. He quickly became a great friend and colleague, but also a wonderful mentor and supporter. I shall be forever grateful for Steve’s friendship and for all the support he provided to me throughout my career.

Russell Pate, Professor of Exercise Science
Russell Pate

I can honestly say that Steve was one of the kindest and most supportive people I met in my time here. To say he was a luminary in our field would be a remarkable understatement. But what I will remember most is Steve being a great person even more than him being a great scientist. I will miss his stories.

Shawn Arent, Chair of Exercise Science

Many of us knew, laughed, shared, worked, debated, published with, and absolutely loved this man. Steve ‘retired’ a few years ago but never really retired. He continued to publish with us, to mentor and offer invaluable professional advice to our students and post-docs, to mentor junior faculty, and to be available to administrators like me who occasionally needed a friend after a hard day or a difficult week. Steve was quite humble yet he published hundreds and hundreds of impactful journal articles, was consistently on the ‘most highly cited’ list in his field, served on numerous national and international policy panels, and was an early pioneer and public advocate on the benefits of exercise to disease prevention and improved human and public health. I will so miss Steve’s drop-ins to my office and his wise counsel on leadership. Such a good soul, good father, good husband, great scientist, and good friend to so many here. A life very well lived!

Thomas Chandler, Dean of the Arnold School of Public Health
Thomas Chandler

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.