publication date: Jan. 12, 2018

An Appreciation

Robert W. Day, former president of Fred Hutchinson, dies at 87

By Gary Gilliland

Former Fred Hutch President Bob Day, date unknown

Robert W. Day, the longest-serving president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, died at his home Jan. 6 of non-small cell squamous carcinoma. He was 87. 

Robert W. Day, former president and director of Fred Hutch.

Photo courtesy of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center


As the current president and director of Fred Hutch, I personally will be forever grateful to Bob for taking me under his wing when I started here three years ago. He was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many of us, and his passing is mourned by all.

He struggled with cancer for many years, but one would never have known it to see him in action. He was such an inspiration in this, as in all things, showing extraordinary strength and courage that matched his wisdom.

Among his many accomplishments as a public health researcher and cancer center leader, one in particular stands out for all of us at the Hutch. Our center’s campus was brought into being under his leadership. Moving Fred Hutch from its original location in Seattle’s First Hill neighborhood to our current home at the south end of Lake Union was one of the most important and momentous decisions in the history of the Hutch.

A bronze bust of Bob now sits at the center of the campus that he made possible. Soon after I shared the news of his death with my colleagues, flowers began collecting at the statue’s base.

Bob’s influence extended far beyond the Hutch, but he always found time, long after stepping down as president, to devote to this organization and, especially, the people here. What follows are excerpts of our tribute to Bob, written by our staff and published shortly after his death.

Day presided over the Hutch from 1981 until 1997, a period when E. Donnall Thomas’ pioneering bone marrow transplant research drew increasing international attention and earned Thomas the 1990 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

A well-read man gifted with charm and wit, Day was also a competitive and uncompromising advocate, determined to fulfill his vision of the Hutch—that of a growing, thriving center of excellence for basic science, clinical trials, public health and prevention research. Under his leadership, Fred Hutch established its long-standing position as the top recipient of research grant dollars from the National Cancer Institute.

But Day’s signature achievement was acquisition of land in Seattle’s South Lake Union in a series of transactions from 1988 through 1991 and the subsequent move from the Hutch’s original headquarters on Seattle’s First Hill to a 15-acre complex now known as the Robert W. Day Campus.

Research on the campus continues to thrive, room for growth remains, and the Hutch campus today anchors a once run-down South Lake Union district that has become a global center for the convergence of bioscience and information technologies.

Day was an enthusiastic tennis player, skier and angler, but his real passion was for books. Growing up outside Boston in Framingham, Mass., he was drawn to the local library, inspired by an older sister who became a scholar and librarian. He later found a refuge as a Harvard student in the undergraduate library there. “It was just wonderful, and I spent hours at the place,” he told a friend. “It was my education, really.”

Day left Harvard early, transferring to the University of Chicago Medical School, attracted in part to the educational philosophy of the university’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, a proponent of teaching the Great Books of the Western World. As a student, Day attended small, informal dinners at the university with the likes of physicist Enrico Fermi and economist Milton Friedman. He graduated in 1956 with an M.D. and an intense interest in public health.

His academic training and early career in public health forged a commitment that would later shape the Hutch as a leader in the field. Before coming to Seattle in 1969, he was already a rising young star, serving as chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health under the administration of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Day spent nearly a decade as dean and professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health. He was a UW representative on the Fred Hutch board when founder Dr. William Hutchinson reached out in 1981 and asked him to run the center.

Day was the first to succeed the iconic Hutchinson as president and director, and as such he had enormous shoes to fill.  A Seattle celebrity himself, “Dr. Bill” had shepherded the growth of his cancer center from the start and named it in memory of his younger brother, the legendary Major League Baseball pitcher and manager Fred Hutchinson, who died in 1964 of cancer at the age of 45.

As Fred Hutch’s president, Day quickly set about creating his own administrative infrastructure, making his mark with a disciplined hand and a strategic outlook. Facing competition for that talent from new biotechnology companies, and convinced that the Hutch needed room to grow, Day soon began looking to consolidate all Hutch operations, which were spreading to downtown Seattle.

That search led him and his team to a neglected neighborhood of warehouses, apartments and light industry at the south end of Lake Union. After acquiring the land from 37 different interests—the largest assemblage of property in the city of Seattle since the World’s Fair of 1962—Day launched what became a 10-year process of moving to new quarters.

“The thing that sticks in my mind about Bob Day was that, if he had trust and confidence that you could do your job, he would allow you to do it, no strings attached,” said Guy Ott, a retired Hutch vice president who was responsible for executing the difficult transition to the new campus. “He told you what needed to be done, gave you the resources to do it, and then got out of the way.”

In the final years of his presidency, as the phased construction of the new campus was under way, Day oversaw the complex negotiations with the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital that led to the creation of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the clinical care partner of Fred Hutch.

After passing the reins in 1997 to Fred Hutch geneticist—and future Nobel laureate—Dr. Lee Hartwell, Day remained on the faculty, continuing to conduct his own research. Notably, he led ongoing studies of the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster on childhood leukemia. He also became involved in business, co-founding Orca Biosciences, a developer of diagnostic blood tests for early detection of cancer, which in 1999 merged with the German firm Epigenetics AG.

In 2005, Day and his wife, C.J. Taylor-Day, founded the Science and Management of Addictions Foundation, with a mission to eliminate the disease of substance addiction in youth by advancing research education and treatment. C.J. died in 2011 after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer.

He is survived by the couple’s two daughters, Natalya Bennett, of Riverview, Florida, and Julia Webb, of Mountlake Terrace, Washington; and by his first wife, Jane Day, and their daughter, Nate Tatum, of Quilcene, Washington, and their son, Christopher, of Seattle; and two grandchildren.

The author is the president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Copyright (c) 2020 The Cancer Letter Inc.