John Bailar, Epidemiologist and Critic of War on Cancer, Dies at 83

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Share on print

John Christian Bailar III, an epidemiologist and biostatistician known for his criticism of NCI’s emphasis on treatment, died Sept. 6. He was 83.

Bailar riffed on the bellicose language of President Richard Nixon’s “War on Cancer” to suggest that the war in question was being lost. Researchers have focused too much on treatment and not enough on prevention, he argued.

“Years of intense effort focused largely on improving treatment must be judged as a qualified failure,” said Bailar in a 1986 article.

In another article, titled “Cancer Undefeated” and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, Bailar called for a paradigm shift in cancer research. Greater emphasis, and consequently, more funding, should be redirected from treatment to prevention.

In an interview with The Cancer Letter, published on June 6, 1997, Bailar discussed the NEJM article:

“The scientific opportunities in prevention are simply not fully developed because prevention has been starved of research funds over a period of many years. Substantial increase in the availability of will be used in part by getting a lot more investigators to think very hard about what might be accomplished.

“We are not attacking treatment. Treatment is already effective in about half of cancer patients. Their disease can be cured. Treatment has a lot to offer every other patient in terms of longer and better survival, and these are advantages that we shouldn’t lose. It’s not a question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, we all agree that it’s half-full. The problem we see is that it’s the same half-full now that it was 20 and 30 years ago.

“We are arguing in favor of a real expansion in early detection as well as prevention.”

Bailar was the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and worked at NCI from 1956 to 1970 and from 1972 to 1980. He served on the editorial boards of Cancer Research and the New England Journal of Medicine, where he was also a statistical consultant.

Bailar received a B.A. from the University of Colorado in 1953, an M.D. from Yale University in 1955 and a Ph.D. in statistics from American University in 1973. He was a professor emeritus in epidemiology at the University of Chicago and a MacArthur Fellow.

Bailar worked at the Veterans Administration from 1970 to 1972 and served as a senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services. He was a lecturer at Harvard University, chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Statistics at McGill University, and chair of the Department of Health Studies at the University of Chicago.

In 1975, Bailar was elected a fellow of the American Statistical Association. He was also a fellow of the American College of Epidemiology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

He was an elected member of the Collegium Ramazzini and the International Statistical Institute, and for his work on breast cancer screening, he was awarded the Commendation Medal from the United States Public Health Service.

Bailar was born on Oct. 9, 1932 in Urbana, Illinois. He is survived by widow Barbara Bailar, brother Benjamin Bailar, and children, Elizabeth, Melissa, John IV, and James, as well as his stepdaughter Pamela Monaco.

A memorial service will be in the Chapel of Collington Retirement Community at 3 p.m. Oct. 9. In lieu of flowers, donations may be given to Yale School of Medicine, Office of Development Alumni Affairs.


John A. Ellerton, the principal investigator of the Nevada Cancer Research Foundation NCI Community Oncology Research Program, has won the 2021 Harry Hynes Award. The award is given annually to NCORP PIs for outstanding contribution to clinical trials and community research. In 1983, Ellerton’s group, then called the Southern Nevada Research Foundation, was among the...

From 1992 to 2008, Ellen Stovall was the president and CEO of NCCS, the oldest survivor-led organization advocating for quality cancer care for all Americans. This video, filmed and produced in 2008, features interviews from NCCS co-founders Dr. Patti Ganz and Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan, Dr. Julia Rowland, Dr. Zeke Emanuel, the late General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, and others.
Laura Brawley