Monday, January 21, 2008

My secret love affair with Judah Folkman

Dr. Judah Folkman, one of the world’s most creative and important cancer researchers, died in the Denver airport on January 15. I heard the news early the next morning on NPR and immediately turned to the obituary in the New York Times.

To be honest, we were together only four times in 17 years.

But that was enough.

In 1995, I met with Judah Folkman at the insistence of my boss, the publisher of the Harvard Health Letter, who thought there would be no harm in having Harvard faculty put their names on articles actually written by science journalists. I opposed this radical change in editorial practice, and the publisher and I agreed that trying out the idea on Judah would decide the matter.

No way, he said. It would be wrong to take credit for someone else’s work. So our big story about angiogenesis research, a field he pioneered, ran with the byline of the person who reported and wrote the article.

He was an honorable man.

Six years later, Judah’s work had become incredibly famous and my friend Bob Cooke published Dr. Folkman’s War, an award-winning account of how a surgeon became one of the world’s leading vascular biologists. There was a book release party for Bob at Boston Children’s Hospital, Judah’s home institution, and a large and festive crowd gathered on a wintry night to toast Bob’s accomplishment.

To everyone’s surprise, Judah took the microphone and read a biography of Bob Cooke that he had prepared for the occasion. The subject of the book lionized its author.

He was a generous man.

In 2004, we met again at a hotel near Washington’s Dulles Airport. Judah was chairing a panel evaluating proposals from young scientists competing for large awards for breast cancer research. These panels typically consist solely of faculty members from medical schools or universities.

In this case, however, Congress required that “consumers and their representatives” help decide. So the group included three breast cancer survivors, all of them powerhouse advocates in their home states, and two science writers.

Some of the academic reviewers expressed displeasure by interrupting us when we spoke, and they were especially dismissive of the advocates. Again and again, Judah stepped in.

He would not allow anyone to disrespect anyone else.

Our paths crossed again in New Orleans last November, where Judah was the keynote speaker for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and I was accompanying graduate students reporting on the meeting. We had a chance to renew old acquaintance just minutes before he took the stage.

He was expected to come to UGA this spring, his first visit ever, to give a lecture. Now that’s out of the question and so is a Nobel Prize, for which the dead aren’t eligible.

He was so alive when we saw him in New Orleans last fall, cracking jokes and showing photos of his granddaughter while describing decades of work that revolutionized treatment for macular degeneration in addition to helping thousands of cancer patients. Judah’s discoveries led to the development of drugs for macular degeneration that some ophthalmologists rate as the most significant non-surgical advance in their field. To them, he was like a god.

But that’s not right. This son of a Cleveland rabbi was not a god. More than any other great physician-researcher I have ever known, he was something better.

The Yiddish word is mensch.