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Dr. Martin Abeloff, 65; chief oncologist at Johns Hopkins

September 17, 2007|Patricia Sullivan | The Washington Post

Dr. Martin D. Abeloff, an international authority on the treatment of breast cancer and chief oncologist and director of the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University for the last 15 years, died of leukemia Friday at the center in Baltimore. He was 65.

Abeloff specialized in solid-tumor research, treatment of lung and breast cancer, and the transfer of research findings from the laboratory to the clinic.

While he served as leader of the Kimmel center, the number of faculty members doubled, its research funding increased sixfold and it consistently ranked among the nation's top three cancer centers.

In April, he appeared on Charlie Rose's PBS show during a series on science and urged colleagues not to overlook prevention as a way that medical science can address cancer. His work in screening for breast cancer risks transformed prevention efforts, colleagues said.

"What he didn't know, he took the time to learn," said Stephen Baylin, deputy director of the cancer center and a longtime friend.

"And with a combination of qualities best summarized as wisdom, he helped transform both the treatment of cancer and the way that Johns Hopkins delivers that care."

Baylin said that in addition to conducting research and managing the center, Abeloff treated patients and emphasized the importance of bringing the fruits of research to those who had cancer.

Abeloff had a kind bedside manner, said Jacquelene L. Redmond, who discovered 17 years ago that she had breast cancer.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," she said. Frightened about her prospects, she and her husband met "this very tall, slender, bearded man in a white coat. Within just an hour and a half, our fears were calmed."

He didn't rush, she said, and "as we got ready to leave, he handed me a small piece of paper with his name and phone number on it. He joked that he did not have any business cards and said, 'If you have any questions or concerns, please call me.' If you look in my wallet today, 17 years later, you will find that small piece of paper is still there."

Abeloff was born in Shenandoah, Pa., and grew up working in his father's drugstore. His mother's breast cancer was diagnosed when he was 12, and she struggled to regain mobility after a radical mastectomy.

"Therapies have been lengthy, toxic and disfiguring, adding to the amount of suffering that a patient and family endures," he said at a Hopkins event this year.

"You simply can't treat cancer without paying attention to the psychological and social aspects of the disease."

Abeloff attended Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., then transferred to an accelerated program at Johns Hopkins University, graduating in 1963. He received his medical degree from Johns Hopkins in 1966. He interned at University of Chicago hospitals and underwent residency and fellowship training in Boston at the then-Beth Israel Hospital and Tufts-New England Medical Center.

He returned to Johns Hopkins for an oncology fellowship, then joined the oncology staff in 1972. He led the medical oncology department before he became director of the cancer center in 1992. He was instrumental in bringing in the largest single gift to Johns Hopkins, a $150-million donation from philanthropist Sidney Kimmel, for whom the center is named.

He was past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, past chairman of the Oncology Drugs Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration and past chairman of the Board of Scientific Counselors to the National Cancer Institute's intramural division of clinical sciences.

He was the lead editor of a comprehensive textbook, Clinical Oncology, now in its third edition.

His leukemia, a form that is sometimes slow to grow, was diagnosed a year ago, and his condition worsened this spring. He lived in Baltimore.

Survivors include his wife, Diane Abeloff of Baltimore; two daughters, Elisa Abeloff of Philadelphia and Jennifer Abeloff of St. Louis; a sister; and three grandchildren.

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