A Statesman of Oncology

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
As a pioneer in the treatment of cancer, Paul Calabresi was chosen by three U.S. presidents to help combat the disease. But he was not merely a researcher and a policy expert. He was a physician who had fought cancer himself. “Paul Calabresi was one of the finest scientists and clinicians I’ve ever met,” says Samuel Broder, former director of the National Cancer Institute. “He was brilliant on several levels, but he also had an unbelievable amount of compassion for his patients.” Calabresi, a founding faculty member of the Brown Medical School and a former chair of the influential National Cancer Advisory Board, died on October 25 of cancer of the tongue. He was seventy-three.

Born in Milan, Italy, Calabresi was the son of antifascists who immigrated to the United States in 1939. A graduate of Yale Medical School, he arrived at Brown in 1968 as a professor of medical science and physician-in-chief at Roger Williams General Hospital. He became a founding director of the Brown Cancer Center and chairman of the Brown department of medicine, the precursor of the medical school. In 1991 he transferred to Rhode Island Hospital, while continuing to teach at Brown.

Calabresi was a “statesman of oncology,” says friend and colleague James Holland. Until around 1950, when chemotherapy was first introduced, surgery was the only way to treat cancer. Medical oncology hit full stride in the early 1970s, Holland explains, when it became clear that chemotherapy after surgery could improve the survival rate for breast cancer. Calabresi was at the forefront of the field. “And the thing about him,” says Arvin Glicksman, a professor emeritus of medical science, “was that he stayed at the forefront.”

One of Calabresi’s primary contributions was in understanding how the body metabolizes anticancer drugs. “Paul’s work allowed many oncology drugs to be given in a better and safer way,” Broder says. Calabresi was an early advocate of combination chemotherapy, in which doctors attack cancer with more than one drug at a time. He was a pioneer in training oncologists, Broder says, and in using chemotherapy in conjunction with surgery and radiation. A number of the doctors he taught went on to hold prominent positions in the field, Glicksman adds. Calabresi also recruited top oncologists to Rhode Island and to the medical school.

In 1991 President George H.W. Bush appointed Calabresi chairman of the National Cancer Advisory Board, which advises the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Cancer Institute on grant applications. Four years later, President Bill Clinton appointed him to the President’s Cancer Panel. He also served on the editorial board of the New England Journal of Medicine. More recently he was invited by President George W. Bush to join the National Dialogue on Cancer. He served on a number of boards and organizations and was a master of the American College of Physicians.

A resident of Barrington, Rhode Island, Calabresi was known not only for his contributions as a scientist but also for his bedside manner. Having survived cancer of the tongue almost thirty years ago (Holland and Glicksman were among the doctors who treated him at the time), Calabresi never patronized his patients, Broder recalls: “He gave them a sense of realistic hope—not false hope, but realistic hope, even when things looked very grim.” He treated patients right up to the time of his own death.

He is survived by his wife, Celia; a daughter, Janice Calabresi Maggs ’82, 419 N. Nelson St., Arlington, Va. 22203; two sons, including Peter ’88 M.D.; eight grandchildren; and a brother.

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January / February 2004