"I want him to be remembered for his courage," says Veronica Atkins, 65, his wife of 15 years. "He was fighting no matter how much abuse they heaped on him." Atkins defended his diet against critics like low-fat proselytizer Dr. Dean Ornish and prescribed it to the patients he saw in his Manhattan clinic four days a week until his death. Finally, in 2002 a study of 53 women suggested, cautiously, that Atkins might be on to something. "The amount of carbohydrate in the diet has important indications," says Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard, now conducting a long-term study. "That doesn't mean high animal fat is good for you."
An Ohio native, Atkins first tried cutting carbs in 1963, to drop the 30 lbs. he gained while at Cornell medical school. He lost 27 lbs. in six weeks. When he shared his diet with the world, famished fans cheered: His plan might baffle science, but at least you could enjoy a bacon cheeseburger (hold the bun).
Despite selling 25 million books and bringing in $100 million last year alone from the sale of his low-carb snacks, Robert Atkins hungered for something more. Instantly controversial with 1972's Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, which touted the merits of bacon over bean sprouts, the Manhattan cardiologist, who died April 17, nine days after falling on an icy sidewalk, wanted the respect of his peers. Instead, the American Medical Association accused Atkins, 72, of straining hearts and kidneys with his diet. Ignored throughout the pasta-and-pesto '80s, he published a revised edition of his book in 1992, attracting new followers—and detractors.