Q&A: 'He Was a Person Who Never Gave Up'

Dr. James Mandell, CEO of Children's Hospital Boston, trained under Judah Folkman and was his friend for 30 years. Folkman died of a heart attack on Monday at age 74. NEWSWEEK's Claudia Kalb spoke with Mandell about Folkman's approach to life and work. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How are you all doing?
Clearly, this was not expected. He'd been as vibrant last week as he was 10 years before and 10 years before that. We were really not expecting this at all.

Did he have any known heart issue?
No. He's been great, flying everywhere, active at all the international and national meetings.

What was his legacy?
He was a person who never gave up. He always encouraged us as well as his own lab to continue to look for solutions to the questions that came up, specifically in areas that involved patients. He was always the one who said, "What are the problems you see in the patients? What are the unanswered questions? Let's take them back to the lab and figure them out." That's one huge legacy: the relentlessness and orientation toward a solution. Second was his mentorship. Every one of us feels we were mentored by him. He was the kind of person who really inspired you. It wasn't a matter of drudgery or completion of a task; it was about conception, ideas, following through.

He inspired people outside his lab as well?
Everywhere. They're scattered now all across the industry, across the institutions, the world—people who trained under him or were influenced by him.

Did he talk about the personal trials, the early skepticism he endured?
Yes. I was here as a trainee, so I was in one of his offices in the '70s. I think that he looked at that as just a fact of life. He never thought that innovative ideas were easily accepted, and if they were, they probably weren't very innovative. I don't think he took it personally. He had a wonderful sense of optimism. That really followed over to those of us who were ourselves starting our careers.

Has science changed because of him?
I think the institution changes you and you change the institution. I think the fact that you take care of children and deal with these wonderful magical beings, you tend to be optimistic. You always look for ways to improve things. I think he, especially, was the kind of person who was so inquisitive that he would never, ever stand on any accepted pattern of treatment or role of science in medicine. He was the questioner. He imbued that optimism with a real sense of realism. You have to go back, figure out basic mechanisms. Even if something doesn't work perfectly the first time you try it. It's always a step in the process.

How did he balance work with family?
He was a great role model for that. He lived across the street from us. We would always talk. He would work the weirdest hours, one or two in the morning. He always felt that the family was important. It's what gave me leave when I became older to spend time with my grandchildren. I think he was a real example for that. How you always take precious time for your family even though you work exceptionally hard.

What about the work he had left to do?
I think he felt he had 20 years ahead of him, and so did we. That's part of the crushing part of this. It's clear that his work is in process. A lot of the work, the most recent focus on the diagnosis and prevention of early malignancies before they could be seen—that's what he was working on the last several years, and a lot of investigators who grew up in his laboratory will continue that work. That doesn't mean we won't miss him every day.

Many people believed he should have won the Nobel Prize.
Clearly, this is somebody who founded a field of science that didn't exist, persevered through all of the skepticism until it became a science in which there are tens of thousands of articles on a regular basis and tens of hundreds of patients exposed to treatments. So clearly we thought recognition of this as a world-changing event was appropriate. I wish Judah would have lived long enough to see that happen.

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