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Remembering Don Coffey

He was “the father of modern science in prostate disease.” More than this, he was a great man

Donald S. Coffey: 1932-2017

We lost a good friend today, and the international world of prostate cancer research lost one of its brightest stars, a brilliant scientist, scholar, thinker, mentor and teacher.

For more than half a century, Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D., made the Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins a better place just by being there; for 30 of those years, he was the Brady’s Director of Research – a scientific legend, who trained and inspired generations of fellows and students and was a powerful driving force in the careers of dozens of scientists who are trying to understand prostate cancer.  A gifted storyteller – everyone who ever talked to him can tell you this – he not only ignited the imagination and creativity of his students and colleagues; he genuinely cared about them, and went out of his way to help them.

Coffey was just with us a few weeks ago, at our 2017 PCF Scientific Retreat, where, as always, he captivated a new audience with his quick mind and gift for cutting through even the most intimidating scientific challenges to find the simple questions at the heart of them.

“This is a day of reflection for several hundred of us around the world as Don’s students,” says oncologist Jonathan Simons, M.D., CEO of the PCF. “Once one, always one.”

Coffey was his mentor when Simons was a medical student at Johns Hopkins, and later when Simons was a postdoctoral fellow and young faculty member at Hopkins.  “Don was a keen student of the Civil War: as Seward said about Lincoln, ‘Now he belongs to the ages.’ Don was brilliant in bioscience research and a brilliant research director. He was also the magician for your preschool children’s birthday party. He was a prodigious author of handwritten notes on life’s trials and triumphs. ‘The Chief’ was Johns Hopkins Medical School’s greatest ambassador to every hall of government over 40 years. Don was the most impactful scientist-philosopher-leader-mentor-scholar-role model and spiritual force for the leadership of cancer research for the world that Johns Hopkins has produced in the last half-century. He has no equal in urology research for the century that it has existed.  Don will be missed, but his living memory is instructive this sad minute: that we should care for each other, swap a gentle joke, and should get back to work curing cancer with discovery.”

His friends agree.  “Don was a genius,” says longtime friend and colleague, Patrick C. Walsh, M.D., Distinguished Service Professor of Urology at Johns Hopkins.  He credits Coffey’s “brilliant ability to simplify” as the key factor in one of Coffey’s most important discoveries, the nuclear matrix of cells, the scaffolding that provides the structure of a cell’s nucleus, and helps organize its DNA.  In cancer cells, Coffey discovered, the nucleus looks different.  “As a non-pathologist,” explains Walsh, “he was able to simplify the pathology of cancer down to one rule:  The nucleus is irregular.  He then set out to find what makes a nucleus round, and in the process, discovered the nuclear matrix.”

But of all of Coffey’s achievements — his colleagues are unanimous on this point — the most important is that he has attracted, inspired, and trained the leaders in the field.  “He is truly the father of modern science in prostate disease because of the many scientists he has personally trained, and the hundreds of others he has influenced,” says Walsh.  “Today, when one looks at the leaders in urological research, every one of them has the imprint of Don Coffey, one way or another.”  Alan W. Partin, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Brady, didn’t know he wanted to be a urologist until he spent four years working in Coffey’s lab as a graduate student; before that, he had wanted to be a pediatrician.  “Don Coffey had the most unique grasp of human nature I have ever witnessed,” says Partin.  “He touched the lives of countless individuals both within urology and oncology, and pressed them always to ask the question, if this is true, what does it mean?”

Coffey’s approach to teaching was simple. “Tell me the smartest people, and I don’t care what they do, I’m helping them.” A partial list of his former graduate students includes some of the top scientists in urology and oncology: Alan Partin, William Nelson, Ken Pienta, Ballentine Carter, Drew Pardoll, Arthur Burnett, Bert Vogelstein, John Isaacs, Herb Lepor, Angelo De Marzo, Shawn Lupold, William Isaacs, Andrew Fineberg, Alan Meeker, Lelund Chung, Warren Heston, and Jonathan Simons. “All these great people,” said Coffey. “It’s not that I teach them anything. It’s that, if you’re the best, I’ll give you an opportunity to do your thing, and we’re on our way.”

Bare-bones life story:  How do you sum up the life of Don Coffey in a few paragraphs?  You don’t even try; you just scratch the surface.  In fact, his life story would make a pretty good movie, starring an actor with great character; maybe Tommy Lee Jones could pull it off. The best we can do here is just try to give you a glimpse in a fairly short space of a great man.

His career trajectory made perfect sense, if you knew Don Coffey:  As a young man, when he got the overwhelming feeling that he was meant to do cancer research — although nothing in his life so far had remotely hinted that this was to be his destiny, and he might as well have had the overwhelming hunch that he should take a walk on the moon — he didn’t dwell on all the reasons why this could never happen.  He just figured out a way to do it.

The bare bones are that Coffey, born in 1932 in Tennessee to parents who never finished high school, struggled in school.  He was dyslexic, but nobody knew this until he had made it through college.  He failed third grade, and took five years to get through high school, where he was a track star and avid Boy Scout; “I liked everything but school,” he says.  He worked full-time at a bakery, and then at a textile mill, to pay his way through college, supporting his wife, Eula (who later worked as a lab technician to support him in graduate school) and their first child; he also helped out his family during this time, as his father was seriously ill.  Despite his mediocre grades, he impressed people everywhere he worked and studied with his uncanny ability to look into the heart of the most complex problems.

It surprised no one that Coffey left a good-paying job at Westinghouse because, while going to night school at Hopkins, he found out about an opening at the Brady Urological Institute — which he had never heard of — working in a lab; this put him one step closer to his goal of studying cancer.   That, after a brief time, he had so impressed faculty members, including the Brady’s director, William W. Scott, M.D. Ph.D., that he was put in charge of the Brady Research Laboratories before he even had a Ph.D.; that Scott and others helped get Coffey into graduate school at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and that, unbeknownst to Coffey, Scott even paid part of his stipend out of his own pocket, just to help him afford to get his doctorate in biochemistry, which he earned in 1964.  That Coffey, who started at Hopkins as a technician and washer of laboratory glassware, would become a full professor in five departments (Urology, Oncology, Pathology, Pharmacology, and Molecular Sciences), that for more than a year he would run the Cancer Center — the second-largest clinical department at Hopkins — without having an M.D.; that he would be on the Principal Professional Staff at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory even though he never had a course in physics.  He was the Catherine Iola and J. Smith Michael Distinguished Professor of Urology, and then a professorship was named after him, too.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Coffey freely admitted.  But in a way, it did.  “You don’t have to know how to work on a car to drive a car,” he said.  “Cooking doesn’t require courses.  Driving doesn’t require courses.  Playing a musical instrument doesn’t require courses.”  You just have to figure out how to do it, and do it well.

Among many other honors and awards, Don Coffey served as President of the American Association for Cancer Research, the largest cancer research society, with 35,000 members from 110 countries.  He was President of the Society for Basic Urologic Research, and served on several major editorial boards. For 19 years, he served as a member of the National Prostatic Cancer Program of the National Cancer Institute, and as National Chairman of this board for four years.  He published more than 250 research papers. Coffey received the Robert Edwards Award from the Tenovus Institute, both the Fuller Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Urological Association, the First Society of International Urology-Yamanouchi Research Award, that society’s highest research award, and the Distinguished Service Award from the American Cancer Society.

In 2015, Coffey received the American Association for Cancer Research’s highest honor, the Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research.  Coffey’s “work on the nuclear matrix established a new paradigm for understanding the biology of normal and cancer cells, while his prostate cancer research helped change the face of that deadly disease,” said Margaret Foti, M.D., Ph.D., the AACR’s chief executive officer.    But his impact extended “far beyond his scientific achievements,” she added. “His outstanding leadership skills, dedication to mentoring young investigators, passionate advocacy for sustained increases in funding for cancer research, and remarkable ability to translate complex scientific concepts into lay language makes him an icon in the field and a true champion of cancer research.”

Coffey was the recipient of two Merit Awards from the National Institutes of Health. And, despite being, as he put it, a “raving liberal,” he was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Cancer Advisory Board in 2006.

Said Coffey about his work: “I’ve dedicated my life; I hope to die doing this. I don’t need any more honors, I’m paid more than I’m worth, I probably should get out of the way, but I still have questions.”


A few words about Don Coffey…

Here’s what some of Don Coffey’s friends and colleagues had to say:

Ballentine Carter, M.D., Johns Hopkins:

Some favorite Don Coffey quotes:

“Ignorance is eating you alive, boy!  (Often said during heated arguments about science.)

“Don’t assume anything you can prove.”

“You must give someone permission to insult you.”

“You are more likely to learn something when the experiment does not turn out the way you predicted.”

“You can learn something from everyone.”


Shawn E. Lupold, Ph.D., PCF-funded Investigator, Johns Hopkins:

Don had one paradigm on which I frequently ponder.  He said that, while he had never baked an apple pie, nor did he know the first thing about apple pies, he could teach you how to be one of the best apple pie makers in the world.  Not the best, but one of the best.  It is straightforward approaches such as these that allowed Don to look at a complicated field and make it simple:  Find out who are the best in the field, talk to them, learn what makes them the best, find your own niche in the field, and start your work.  One key point is not needing to be the best right away, but one of the best.  Don carefully provided the advice and confidence so that you make progress and feel that you are indeed one of the best.  What’s more is, he did it in a way so that you’ve achieved, more or less, on your own and can feel proud.


Angelo M. De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D., PCF-funded Investigator, Johns Hopkins:

“Don had a heart for people like no other I’ve met.  He would always stop and take time to listen about what’s going on in your life, whether it is related to science, home life, or some difficulty with an interpersonal relationship or political conundrum. Don rarely said “no” when he was asked to perform virtually anything for anyone.

Another amazing thing about Don: Not only did he have this deep caring for other people, but he had an unbelievable gift of insight and the ability to perceive critical issues about a problem and then communicate highly innovative and effective solutions—almost always without directly telling his advisee what to do. The odds that one person would simultaneously possess these two incredible characteristics, the ability to care deeply for nearly everyone he encounters, and incredible insight and brilliance into all types of problems, are so small that it is difficult to comprehend.”

Janet Worthington
Janet Farrar Worthington is an award-winning science writer and has written and edited numerous health publications and contributed to several other medical books. In addition to writing on medicine, Janet also writes about her family, her former life on a farm in Virginia, her desire to own more chickens, and whichever dog is eyeing the dinner dish.