A Master Mentor Who Nurtured a Field

Published: Monday, Feb 27, 2017
Robert J. Mayer, MD

Robert J. Mayer, MD

Oncology and hematology arguably attracts more research funding, more media attention, and more talented minds than any other medical specialty—but that wasn’t always the case. When Robert J. Mayer, MD, graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1969, the profession was just emerging from its infancy. Its training programs were still a work-in-progress, and it struggled to attract top researchers.

Thousands of people deserve some of the credit for changing that reality, but Mayer deserves a particularly significant share. He has, like all Giants of Cancer Care®, published important papers. Indeed, Mayer’s research has helped create standards of care for leukemias and gastrointestinal cancers.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Mayer has spent much of his career working to improve and expand the entire field of oncology and hematology. He was a key architect of one of the first postgraduate training programs in cancer, a tireless worker for the development of professional groups such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), a catalyst for the increased specialization among cancer doctors, and a mentor to hundreds of young physicians from institutions all around the world. He was, in other words, a driving force in the professionalization of an entire specialty.

“Bob has a commitment, not only to cancer patients and cancer research, but to the field of oncology itself. He is just one of life’s natural mentors, and he has mentored individuals at his own and at other institutions,” said Alan P. Venook, MD, the Madden Family Distinguished Professor of Medical Oncology and Translational Research at the University of California, San Francisco.

“I first met him when a flight cancellation stranded us both at Frankfurt Airport on the way back from a conference where I’d done a small presentation. He was already well known and I was just a very junior researcher. He introduced himself and we spent the day looking for a way home while we talked about my research and my interests.

Within a week of returning to San Francisco, he had appointed me to a committee. He basically mentored me from across the country. He gave me the opportunity to do truly meaningful work far faster than I could have done otherwise, and he has done the same for a number of accomplished researchers.”

A Commitment to Mentoring

Mayer’s commitment to mentoring may stem from the difference between his years as a college undergraduate and his years as a medical student. During the former, Mayer developed a deep and lasting relationship with a faculty adviser who helped him make the most of his time inside and outside the classroom. During the latter, Mayer’s adviser left a few months into his first year, and the school did not replace him. Mayer overcame that challenge, but he had always been unusually bright and energetic. Born to Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany for Long Island in the late 1930s, Mayer decided at an early age to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He graduated first in his high school class and went on to be a standout undergraduate at Williams College before moving on to Harvard Medical School and a residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. He then took a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), both because it was then the world’s leading center of cancer research and because the job fulfilled military obligations that might otherwise have sent him to Vietnam.

Mayer says he learned more about medicine in a few years at the NCI than he did in all his prior medical training. He was soon, however, on his way back to Boston, when Emil Frei III, MD, offered him a job at a new cancer center that Harvard was building. It was only a 1-year fellowship, but Mayer so enjoyed working at what would come to be known as the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute that he has stayed for an extra 40 years (and counting).

“The NCI was a wonderful place to treat patients and do research, but it had no ties to any medical school and it trained no residents, so it was really missing most of the teaching component that had been integral to academic medicine for more than a century,” Mayer said.


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