Remembering Cancer Researcher Judah Folkman

It's hard to believe that Dr. Judah Folkman, the pioneering cancer researcher who succumbed to a heart attack on Monday at the age of 74, couldn't ward off death. The man whose mind pulsed with questions, ideas and the arcane details of human biology had survived the most brutal of battles long ago: scientific skepticism. When he first proposed his radical theory of angiogenesis in the 1970s—that cancer tumors grow by recruiting blood vessels for nourishment—he was derided by fellow scientists. Folkman remembered hearing researchers "laughing in the corner" or excusing themselves to go to the bathroom when he got up to speak at scientific meetings. Decades later, in May 1998, a hyperbolic James Watson told the New York Times, "Judah is going to cure cancer in two years." Not so. But angiogenesis spawned an entire field of research, led to more than 10 new cancer drugs now on the market (with dozens more in clinical trials), and inspired young researchers to investigate bold new avenues in cancer research.

Moses Judah Folkman didn't seek the limelight. The son of a rabbi, he spent a lifetime trying to answer the prayers of his patients. He was a healer, a visionary, a compassionate man with a probing intellect and a grandfatherly spirit. During my first interview with him in the midst of the 1998 media glare, Folkman offered me cookies, spent hours poring over the science, then walked me out the front door of Children's Hospital in Boston in his white lab coat to be sure I'd get home safely in a cab. This as some 2,000 newspapers and television crews around the world desperately tried to get his attention. Folkman wasn't interested in being a celebrity—he refused to be photographed alone for our cover story that week because he didn't want to be singled out for research he insisted was collaborative. He was interested in saving his patients' lives. And it was their lives, not just their medical histories, that mattered. During our interview he shared photographs of each of them as if he were showing family albums; he told me about their hobbies and their dreams. His followers—many of whom call him their hero—believe Folkman should have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Folkman believed he just had to keep asking questions. "You have to think ahead," he once told me. "Science goes where you imagine it."