publication date: May. 15, 2020


Oncology pioneer John W. Yarbro dies at 88

By Eric T. Rosenthal and Donald L. “Skip” Trump, MD, FACP, FASCO

Oncology pioneer John W. Yarbro, MD, PhD, died April 13 in Miramar Beach, Florida. He was 88.

Yarbro was one of the cancer experts called to testify before Congress to speak in favor of the draft legislation that became the National Cancer Act of 1971. At that time, he was founding director of the department of medical oncology at Philadelphia’s American Oncologic Hospital (now Fox Chase Cancer Center), and he noted that the accomplishments of many of the leading cancer research centers—including Roswell Park, MD Anderson, and Memorial Sloan Kettering—were due more to the support of state legislators and private philanthropists than the medical establishment.

He further made the point that cancer studies were underrepresented in medical research presentations and publications. He pointed out that between 1966 and 1971, only 5% of the papers presented at the annual meetings of the American Society for Clinical Investigation dealt with cancer while 17% of U.S. population died of cancer, and during the same period, 45% of the papers presented at the meetings dealt with heart disease and related cardiovascular diseases when 40% of deaths at the time were due to heart disease.

We were fortunate to have spoken with Yarbro and his wife, Connie, a founder of the Oncology Nursing Society, shortly before his death when researching our book, Centers of the Cancer Universe, due to be released next year during the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act.

During that conversation, Yarbro shared his experiences as first director of the National Cancer Institute’s cancer centers program, which was created to enact a prime provision of the National Cancer Act–to establish “15 comprehensive cancer centers.”

Richard L. Schilsky, executive vice president and chief medical officer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, recalled first meeting Yarbro when he joined the faculty of the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1981, after completing his NCI fellowship.

“John was clearly the intellectual force in the division and he took me under his wing. He had a keen interest in science, specifically biochemistry and DNA synthesis. He was a wonderful mentor in that he took a deep interest in my work, offered critiques, challenged conclusions and helped me become a better researcher. He was also a shrewd administrator with a keen understanding of local and national ‘onco-politics’ and his insights and advice helped me navigate some of the challenges we faced at our institution during those years,” Schilsky said.

Yarbro was “a fabulous editor with a clear vision for where the science of oncology was heading and how new biological insights could be applied to improve cancer care,” Schilsky said. “His selection of topics and authors for Seminars in Oncology over many years reflected his scientific ‘taste’ and appreciation of innovation. I learned a great deal from John early in my career and, although we only worked together for a few years before I moved to the University of Chicago, we remained close friends.”

Yarbro was born in Chattanooga, TN, raised in Louisville, KY, and received both his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Louisville. After joining the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he interned at Tripler Army Hospital, and then trained in internal medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he served as chief medical resident and also received a PhD for research in nucleic acids.

In addition to his time at NCI and Fox Chase, Yarbro also served as: director of the division of hematology at the University of Kentucky; director of the Missouri Cancer Program; director of the Regional Cancer Center, Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Illinois; president of the Association of Community Cancer Centers; and secretary-treasurer of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

He chaired numerous national committees including the Panel of Hematologic and Neoplastic Diseases of the United States Pharmacopeia; served as editor of Seminars in Oncology for 34 years; and was instrumental in launching The Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Yarbro authored more than 200 scientific papers, abstracts and book chapters. His interests included cancer research, patient care, problem-based medical education, cancer center administration, and the relationships among clinical research, quality of care, and health care funding.

He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Connie Yarbro; a grandson, Paul and his wife Pamela; great-grandchildren, Francys and Leonardo; and his dog Tzu Hsi. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Francys Elena, and his second wife, Geraldine Yarbro, MD.

Trump retired from his position as Founding CEO and Executive Director of The Inova Schar Cancer Institute in the Inova Health System, Fairfax, VA. While at Inova he was also a professor of medicine in the cancer center at the University of Virginia. During his career, Trump worked as a GU medical oncologist and held leadership positions at several NCI-designated cancer centers, most recently CEO and President of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute (2007-2014).

Rosenthal is an independent medical journalist who has covered issues, controversies and trends in oncology for more than three decades. He founded the National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Centers Public Affairs Network in 1990.

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