Folkman, 74, Broke Biomedical Ground

M. Judah Folkman, a Harvard Medical School professor and a groundbreaking biomedical pioneer, died of a heart attack in the Denver International Airport on Monday. He was 74.

Folkman was most famous for his impact on cancer treatment through his investigation of blood vessels’ role in tumor growth. A tireless innovator and mentor, he is also remembered for personally and professionally inspiring patients, students, and peers.

“The field of cancer research has lost one of its most passionate, committed and creative warriors,” Edward Benz Jr., president of the Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Institute for Cancer Research, said in a statement.

In 1971, Folkman published what would become a landmark paper about the relationship between tumors and blood supply. Folkman persisted in the face of skepticism and eventually founded the field of angiogenesis, the study of the growth of new blood vessels. This led to a new approach to cancer treatment, in which the blood supply of tumors is targeted, at a time when surgery and chemotherapy drugs were overwhelmingly emphasized.

Folkman’s contributions live on in the 1.2 million patients who have undergone treatment based on his research and in the more than 1,000 laboratories worldwide that continue his investigations, according to Children’s Hospital Boston.

Folkman, the son of a rabbi, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1933. He was accepted to Harvard Medical School at 19 after graduating cum laude from Ohio State University and coauthoring his first academic paper. While still at the Medical School, he developed one of the first internal pacemakers to help keep damaged hearts beating. He graduated magna cum laude in 1957.

After a two-year stint in the Navy, during which he helped invent implantable controlled release drug therapy, Folkman returned to Boston. He served 14 years as the surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Hospital and then turned full-time to the research for which he is best known.

Folkman was appointed a professor of pediatrics and also a professor of cell biology at the Medical School. His students recall his infectious curiosity.

“I remember being a student in a lab with him, looking at the data from an experiment and thinking it was a total failure. And he’d look at the same data and say ‘I wonder why ‘x’? Why did it turn out that way?’ To his thinking, there was no such thing as a failed experiment.” said Michael A. Gimbrone Jr., a pathology professor at HMS and Folkman’s first thesis student and postdoctoral fellow. “He truly touched my life in wonderful ways and encouraged in me a love of science which is what legacy is all about.”

Robert J. D’Amato, an associate professor of ophthalmology, was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Folkman Laboratories and saw Folkman as both a father and a colleague.

“He taught me always to return patients’ calls and find some way to give them hope,” D’Amato said in a written statement to The Crimson. “He was a man who put his patients first and used the laboratory as a weapon for them.”

Harvard biologist Donald Ingber worked closely with Folkman for more than 20 years.

“I don’t know anyone like him. There’s only one person in every generation with all those strengths,” he said. “He told me, ‘in science you can’t give great salaries, you can’t live the high life, but what you can have is complete creative freedom.’ And that’s something he held to with everyone in his sphere. He was just pure passion, pure curiosity. He loved to share and loved to teach.”

Ingber is the Judah Folkman professor of vascular biology in the Department of Pathology at HMS.

Folkman’s wife, Paula, said in an interview with The Boston Globe that the family is planning funeral services for Sunday at Temple Israel in Boston.