Charles A. Coltman Jr., long-time SWOG chair and co-founder of the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, dies at 88

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Charles A. Coltman Jr., a pioneer of treatment of leukemia and lymphoma, a long-time chair of SWOG, and a co-founder of the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, died after a long illness on Nov. 28. He was 88.

“Dr. Coltman’s profound influence on the cancer research community cannot be overstated,” said Charles Blanke, SWOG chair. “He was a true pioneer, seeing possibilities early – then making them happen with the heart and hard work and military bearing and precision of the Air Force officer he was.”

Coltman was born on Nov. 1, 1930. He earned his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 1956, then entered the U.S. Air Force. He later completed his medical training in internal medicine and hematology/oncology at The Ohio State University, then became chief of Hematology and Oncology at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in San Antonio.

His early work led to improvements in treatment regimens for multiple forms of leukemia and lymphoma.

Coltman retired from the Air Force in 1977 and began a long career at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, beginning as medical director of the Cancer Therapy & Research Center in 1977.

In 1978, Coltman and William G. McGuire, launched a San Antonio-based symposium on breast cancer research. They envisioned a meeting where bench scientists and clinicians would exchange information.

Today, SABCS is the largest annual breast cancer meeting in the world.

In 1981, Coltman was elected chairman of the Southwest Oncology Group. During his 24 years as SWOG chair, the cooperative group led two landmark cancer prevention trials: SELECT and the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial.

In 1988-1989, Coltman served as president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. In 2001, ASCO recognized him with the David A. Karnofsky Memorial Award and Lecture in 2001, and he was named fellow in 2007.

Coltman had served as co-director of the AACR/ASCO Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop from 1996 to 1999; a faculty member of the AACR/ASCO Methods in Clinical Cancer Research Workshop from 2000 to 2001; chair of the AACR State Legislative Committee from 1998 to 2000; co-chair of the Texas (West) State Legislative Committee from 1998 to 2000; and a member of the Glaxo Wellcome Oncology Clinical Research Award Committee from 1998 to 1999.

“We were saddened to learn of Dr. Coltman’s death just before this year’s San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium got underway,” Margaret Foti, CEO of AACR, said in a statement. “His work as a cofounder of SABCS will be remembered forever, as the research presented each year in the symposium has translated into better outcomes for patients suffering from breast cancer. Morbidity and mortality from breast cancer have dropped, thanks in large part to translational cancer research and state-of-the-art clinical trials, which Dr. Coltman championed throughout his career.”

In his remarks at the Dec. 4 opening of the 41st SABCS, C. Kent Osborne, director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine and one of the three co-chairs of the symposium, paid this tribute to Coltman:

As one would expect of a meeting of this longevity, along the way we have lost some of the luminaries who paved the way for the many accomplishments we have witnessed over the past four decades in diagnosing, preventing, and treating breast cancer. Such is the case today. I’m sorry to tell you that Chuck Coltman, one of the two originators of this meeting, died several days ago after a long illness.

Chuck was a colleague and friend for more than 30 years. After earning an MD degree at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he entered the U.S. Air Force. Following his training in internal medicine and hematology/oncology at Ohio State University, he became Chief of Hematology and Oncology at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center in San Antonio.

On his retirement from the Air Force in 1977, he became director of clinical medical oncology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, joining Bill McGuire to co-direct the new Division of Medical Oncology. Chuck and Bill recruited me to the Health Science Center at that same time, and both of them had a huge impact on my career.

Although Chuck was internationally known for his work in lymphoma and leukemia, in 1978 he partnered with Bill to create the first SABCS, which attracted 141 clinicians from around the region.

I had little to do with that meeting, but enjoyed listening to the talks by such speakers as Bernie and Ed Fisher and Marc Lippman, to name a few.

The meeting was a success, and three years later it was expanded to two days and researchers were invited to submit abstracts for presentation. That’s when the meeting really took off and grew to become the largest annual breast cancer meeting in the world, attracting more than 7,500 people from 90 countries.

Chuck and Bill always thought that the meeting should educate clinicians as well as basic scientists. They also felt that these groups should educate each other by having presentations in the same room, forcing us to listen whether we wanted to or not. Thus was born the first “translational” meeting, 12 years before the term “translational research” was actually coined. Their insight and vision continue to this day.

On the surface, Chuck was a tough guy, booming voice, commanding presence, and very military-like, given his background. But that was all a tough exterior. Inside, Chuck was a pussycat, a special person who was warm, kind and fair to everyone. He would do anything for a friend or colleague and helped me immensely in my own career.

Throughout Chuck’s career, he received many awards, including the Karnofsky Award from ASCO. He served as president of that organization as well. He was a gifted teacher and he was so proud of his trainees, who included future ASCO and AACR Presidents George Sledge, Joe Bailes, and the man sitting next to me, Carlos Arteaga.

Chuck successfully directed the SWOG, previously known as the Southwest Oncology Group, for decades. In 1992, Bill McGuire died, and Chuck asked me to serve as co-director of this meeting. I was honored to accept.

Chuck was instrumental in introducing several features that were once considered new to a scientific meeting. Perhaps most notably, he integrated the breast cancer advocate community as an important component, the first international meeting to do so. Indeed, Chuck Coltman had an undeniable impact on the field of oncology.

The breast cancer community owes Chuck a great debt of gratitude for his vision and inspiration that led to this international symposium that has done so much to educate clinical and bench researchers and the lay public about breast cancer.

The work presented at SABCS over the years has benefited countless patients, and has truly helped reduce morbidity and mortality from breast cancer.

He will be missed but his legacy will live on.

A SWOG blog post reads:

The House(s) Dr. Charles Coltman Built

Much of the SWOG Cancer Research Network was built by one man. That was Charles Arthur Coltman, Jr., M.D., our longest-serving chair. Dr. Coltman led our group from 1981 to 2005. Last week, he passed away in his Texas home at the age of 88.

SWOG and all who do oncology research owe him so much. Dr. Coltman was the founder and creator of:

  • The Hope Foundation for Cancer Research, source of so much of our inspiration and innovation

  • Our Statistics and Data Management Center, based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

  • Our Young Investigator Training Course, which has trained 100 people and launched 45 trials

  • Our patient advocacy program, the oldest and largest in our National Clinical Trials Network

  • Our cancer prevention efforts, launched in 1987 as part of the Cancer Control Committee

  • Our minority community oncology program, which serves African-Americans, Latinos, and others

  • Our website, SWOG.org

  • Our early international efforts, which started in Japan and now extend to Latin America

And then, of course, there’s the science.

Dr. Coltman was a champion of some of our best trials, embracing both treatment and prevention studies. On his own, way back in 1967 when we were still the Southwest Cancer Chemotherapy Group, he led the first NCI test of cytosine arabinoside (ara-C) in acute myelogenous leukemia. The trial compared a two-day- against a five-day infusion and found the response rate skyrocketed with the longer dosing. With Dr. Richard Fisher, Dr. Coltman also helped lead pioneering work in the CHOP combination chemotherapy.

Dr. Coltman also provided exceptional leadership on our two landmark cancer prevention trials—SELECT and the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial. Together, those studies enrolled more than 53,000 men…

Dr. Coltman’s impact on cancer research was significant, and it was global. He helped create the Vail Workshop (which now has its own hashtag), and co-founded the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, where he was honored this week. He enhanced cancer research involving Asia and South America, and expanded early career training encompassing Europe.

There are so many aspects of Dr. Coltman that we will miss. A native of Pennsylvania, he embraced his adopted state of Texas—and never missed any special opportunity to wear his cowboy boots, hat, and duster.

Dr. Coltman was still quite formal, showing up at the SWOG office in San Antonio every day in a suit and tie and comporting himself crisply like the Air Force colonel that he was. He could also be wickedly funny.

Former SWOG group statistician John Crowley said: “I still find myself using words, expressions and phrases I got from him—Coltmanisms like ‘alphabetagooferdust’ and ‘difungomuctane’ for the latest drug combos, ‘That good, eh?’ when someone said they were just ‘OK,’ and my favorite way to close a meeting: ‘Everyone opposed to adjourning, please remain seated.’”

His impact will live on within SWOG for many decades to come.

Otis Brawley, former chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, who worked closely with Coltman while serving as the NCI program director for the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial, said he is grateful to Coltman for (1) advancing his career, and (2) introducing him to single-malt Scotch.

Said Brawley:

Some people will remember Chuck Coltman for his early work in lymphoma and his later work coordinating the big SWOG studies. He was one of the pioneers of CHOP in the 1960’s and 70’sand later he was a giant in the field for his masterful ability to lead SWOG when it was the largest cancer cooperative group.

I will always remember Chuck Coltman as a friend, colleague and mentor. He believed in educating young people and giving them opportunity. He helped a number of us.

I first met Chuck in the early 1990’s was eventful. It was at a meeting of all the cooperative group chairs at NCI. There were 12 groups at the time. Chuck sat next to me, I was nervous, as his reputation as a giant preceded him.

About two hours into the meeting he started having chest pain and sweating. He was hospitalized for a myocardial infarction.

For the next 20 years, he would refuse to sit next to me in meetings.

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