News organizations used Dr. Judah Folkman’s death to report on his decades-long cancer research career. Given his status as a distant, non-celebrity, non-Nobel surgeon, you may be asking yourself why you, personally, should care about his death. Here’s why.
We were in our second year of medical school, feeling the growing pressure of clinical years just around the corner, when we would be thrown into the hospital system. For now, we had lectures in a large hall with 130 students sitting in chairs that sloped down to a stage. Professors came with presentations and handouts and complex diagrams. The immunology lectures were continuous strings of letters and numbers, with only the occasional verb, impossible to decode as human speech without months of training. Every tissue, every disease, every human physiologic function was discussed, down to the sub-molecular level. After hours of these lectures, the air would get stale and backs would ache and the squeak of weight shifting in chairs would become a metronomic beat marking out time that seemed to pass endlessly.
Then, one day, Dr. Folkman walked on stage. He asked us to put down our pens. He said he was going to teach us something that no one else would ever discuss, much less teach. I can’t imagine what he was thinking as he looked out on the sea of our faces. Give or take a few years, almost all of us were twenty-four years old. Almost all of us were single, ambitious, untouched by any of the major human experiences—no children, tragedies, severe illnesses or grief. The youth, the arrogance, the lack of world experience, all of it had to be a daunting, uninspiring sight. Dr. Folkman knew that in mere months, we would be keepers of information that would profoundly change lives. Pathology reports, cancer diagnoses, even the death of a loved one, those were all things we would be telling vulnerable people. Our actions and our words would be often unsupervised, particularly when disaster struck in the middle of the night.