Hail to “The Chief” Donald S. Coffey, a scientist, a mentor, a wit, dies at 85

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Donald S. Coffey, Ph.D., cancer warrior, humanist, mentor to hundreds of researchers and physicians, friend to countless people, was filled with a burning curiosity to understand the world and to know personally everyone he came in contact with.

Everyone has the story—“I met Don at a meeting and he sat me down and he asked me to tell him my life story—and I was forever changed.”

Coffey—“The Chief” to all of us who knew him well—died on Nov. 9 at 85.

He was born in Bristol, VA, on Oct. 10, 1932. An undiagnosed and unrecognized dyslexic, he struggled through school, failing multiple grades. He eventually attended King College in Bristol, Tenn. In 1953, after leaving King College, he entered the University of East Tennessee.

In 1955, he was hired by the North American Rayon Company as a chemist during his last two years of college. After graduation in 1957, he was hired as an associate chemical engineer by the Westinghouse Electronic Corp.

Don related that one night, as he was meditating about what to do with his life, that the word “cancer” came to him. He went home to look up what the word meant and read that it meant “uncontrolled growth.”

He told his wife Eula that he had to go figure cancer out and he was encouraged by his former boss at North American Rayon, Lee R. Herndon, an alumnus of Hopkins, to go to Johns Hopkins University to work in cancer research. Don attended evening classes at McCoy College, the Hopkins night school, and soon obtained a night shift job of washing glassware at the Brady Research Laboratory.

Coffey became acting director of the Brady Urological Research Laboratory from 1959 to 1960, and left his position at Westinghouse. He applied to the graduate program in the medical school’s department of physiological chemistry and received his Ph.D. in 1964.

During the late 1960s, Coffey once again became involved in research with the Brady Institute during Guy Williams-Ashman’s tenure as director of the Brady Laboratory for Reproductive Biology. Upon Williams-Ashman’s return to Chicago in 1969, Coffey became director of the laboratory. He held the position until 1974, when it merged with the Brady Research Laboratory and Coffey was made director of the entire operation.

The Chief was fascinated with the concept of creativity. “How could homo sapiens have 95% of the same DNA as a chimpanzee, but we were the ones going to the moon?” For over a quarter of a century, Don was famous for giving his annual Saint Patrick’s Day Lecture to the Hopkins Community on the Origins of Creativity and Human Destiny. It was an annual event that we never tired of hearing. His principal questions were: Where did creativity come from and how did man fit in the universe?

“Give a monkey a typewriter and you will never see a book typed.” I personally went to work for Coffey when he came to give a mini-version of the lecture as a lunch time talk to our medical school class. Enthralled, I asked to see him. He welcomed me into his office one evening and asked for my life story. (That was his standard practice with all students.) I walked out several hours later with the task of figuring out how to make a scale model of how DNA could be folded into a nucleus. And so started my career in science. This type of story can be told by every person who ever worked with the Chief.

Don had a way of making us think beyond ourselves. He practiced meditation throughout his life and valued taking the time to think. He often said, when you get to work, notice what you were thinking about on the way in… that is what you should be working on. To help guide students in the art of creative discovery, he wrote the Final Exam–a series of guiding principles for science and life–starting with “If this is true, what does it imply.”

The text of his final exam appears here.

He understood that trying to understand and cure cancer was a passionate mission and vocation, not a job, and often talked about the hunt for the cure. A passionate student of American history, he was enamored with the early hunters who used long rifles to stalk game. He penned the “Creed of the Brady Long Rifles” in the 1970s to guide us all in the hunt. He recognized the need for a fort, where hunters could gather safely to talk about the hunt and swap stories to help each other. This safe haven has served as the grounding principle for research at the Brady Urological Institute ever since.

The creed appears here.

So, from working in his father’s gas station in the hills of East Tennessee, Don made the unlikely journey to the halls of Hopkins, coming in through the “back door” as a laboratory bottle washer. He was the embodiment of positive energy and passionate about finding a cure for cancer. But he never took himself—or anyone else—too seriously. His magic tricks and irreverent adventures were legendary, and he filled the room with fun wherever he went. He was also known for his almost infinite capacity to turn concepts into notable quotes, a few of which are noted here:

“I don’t know how to make an apple pie, but if that is what you want to do, I can tell you how to make the best apple pie.”
“If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.”
“Barium—what we do to them when they die down South.”
“I can say, I am not fat, but I’m fat, and everyone knows I am fat… everyone knows what the real issues are, but they just don’t say it.”
“Would you rather understand cancer or cure it?”
“Ignorance is eatin’ you alive!”
“That’s so wrong, even the opposite is false.”
“What is it that gives you tachycardia?”
“They’re p_ _ _ing in your face and telling you its raining?”
“That suggestion went over like a turd in a punch bowl.”
“I’m just here doing missionary work.”
“Seminal vesicles never get cancer.”
“Life is a isothermal, chemomechanical engine.”
“Water is the answer.”
“Symmetry is fundamental, but I don’t understand it.”
“Temperature, temperature, temperature.”
“The interface of order and chaos is the key.”
“The solution to cancer will be a strange simplicity.”
“Just one last thing, then we’re out of here.” [Repeat six times over the space of four hours]

Don embodied the pure joy of scientific discovery like none other. Through his work and teaching, Don inspired leagues of scientists to better understand cancer and tackle it head-on. Don advocated for human rights and was a champion for those who needed a voice.

Perhaps above all, Don had the unique gift of seeing the very best in all of us, and inspiring us to do our utmost as researchers, physicians, teachers, and human beings, to make the world a better place. The world is clearly a better place because of the Chief; he was the very finest and will be dearly missed.

For a real sense of who he was, take a look at the documentary recently made of him.

For all of us who knew him and loved him, our grief is deep but our memories of the Chief bring joy that is boundless.

The author is The Donald S. Coffey Professor of Urology, professor of oncology, and professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins Hospital

Creed of the Brady long rifles

brady_longriflesThis group of hunters is dedicated to a special style and although it is not the only way to hunt, it is the way that they hunt. Hunting is very important for the tribe but it is not the only thing that is important.

  1. The long rifle is serious in the hunt but still has fun and does not take himself too seriously.

  2. Only hunt where the big game exists and avoid shooting insects or trees.

  3. Always hunt with a small band or as a single hunter. Avoid the use of machine guns and if howitzers move in, move to other hunting areas. The best fame is found where few hunters travel.

  4. Stalking is important but careful steady aim with dry powder brings down the game. Skinning the game, transporting it out of the woods to the kitchen and preparing the meal is the most difficult part. Leaving any game uneaten or dead in the woods is a great waste of resources and is comparable to a still birth.

  5. Although knowing where to hunt is extremely important, always give first credit to those who actually shoot the game.

  6. If you hear other hunters in the area, it is sometimes informative to watch them hunt and to see what they are hunting but do not try to shoot the game they are stalking. Group hunts are sometimes important but rarely satisfying.

  7. To hunt, you must have support such as ammunition and powder and they do not come from the woods. Make sure you convince someone of the importance of what you are hunting.

  8. Each hunter must operate from a fort and the fort should be as pleasant as possible and a good place to reside. People live there and they each have their own aspirations and needs and you must take care of them.

  9. There is more to hunting than just shooting the game. Each part takes careful planning and execution.

  10. Always learn new ways to hunt and never hunt too long in the same spot. Always stay on the trail of new game and try to out-think other hunters.

  11. Respect other forts and hunters but do not hold them in awe and avoid skirmishes at all times. When visiting their fort, share with them the tales of the hunt but do not try to convince them that you are the greatest hunter in the woods, regardless of how you feel on that matter.

  12. The camaraderie between hunters is a great bond and it is maintained by mutual respect and destroyed by greed.

  13. A hunter must always stop to take note of a beautiful brook or a mountain view even if they are occasionally ignored during the hunt.

  14. Every hunter will be caught in a storm, but it will pass, and you must keep your powder dry.

  15. Every hunter will get old and lose their sight and they must transfer their hunting skills to clear young sights. Give the young hunter room to develop and let them hunt what they please.

  16. Sharing the hunt is as important as the hunt. Gather together each year around the campfire to exchange stories and techniques.

  17. Pass on the great traditions and discard the worn and useless hunting techniques. Remember, the woods will change but the hunt goes on.

Good hunting!

— D.S. Coffey

Coffey DNA

The real final exam

Every student trained in Donald S. Coffey’s laboratory or classroom for 4 decades has been given this “real final exam” in either oral, written, or both forms. Some believe the wisdom in it passed on to the next generations of cancer researchers is as vast and generous and dedicated to the eradication of cancer as the heart of its author.

  1. IF THIS IS TRUE, WHAT DOES IT IMPLY? Calculate the time it takes to do an experiment, then put down the percent of time you actually thought about the results; you will be lucky if it is 10%. We usually don’t need more experiments, we need more clear thinking. If you can practice this to an art, you will always have new ideas and insight. Inhibitions to generate ideas and present trends and concepts, tend to paralyze this important process.


  3. YOU DON’T HAVE TO ASSUME ANYTHING THAT YOU CAN PROVE. When you assume, you are going to make an ASS-of U and ME” – Coach, in Bad News Bears.

  4. THE EXPERIMENT THAT DIDN’T COME OUT THE WAY YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD, IS THE ONLY EXPERIMENT THAT IS REALLY GOING TO TEACH YOU SOMETHING NEW. The key observations are usually “swept under the rug” or rationalized away. The one fact that doesn’t fit the theory is always the most important fact.

  5. EVERY DATUM IS SCREAMING TO TELL YOU SOMETHING, BUT YOU MUST DO THE LISTENING AND THINKING. If it isn’t worth thinking about, it wasn’t worth doing. A burning curiosity is the “ATP” of the laboratory.


  7. A COMPLEX EXPERIMENT IS USUALLY THE LEAST PRODUCTIVE. A 500 tube experiment is very susceptible to Murphy’s first law. Don’t try to answer it all at once. Do a few things right. Too much phenomenology provides more complexity and little insight.

  8. IT IS TIME TO DO SOME EXPERIMENTS, OTHERS MUST WAIT. There are many experiments worth doing but only a few great ones. Don’t do the next experiment to come to mind. Try to think up a critical experiment that will go to the heart of the question.

  9. YOU ARE GOING TO BE SURPRISED AT THE SIMPLICITY AND BEAUTY OF THE REAL ANSWER. Almost a billion years went into selecting the system that you are studying. Remember, Crick and Watson didn’t make the double helix, they only discovered an ancient system still operating today. It had plenty of time to be perfected.

  10. ALL NEW IDEAS ARE RESISTED BY YOU – AUTHORITIES – THE EDITORS – STUDY SECTIONS – DEPARTMENT CHAIRMEN – PEERS – AND FRIENDS. IF THIS DISCOURAGES YOU, YOU SHOULD RETIRE EARLY. HOWEVER, MOST CRITICISM CAN BE CONSTRUCTIVE IF YOU LISTEN WITH AN OPEN MIND. There is a fine line between being persistent and being bullheaded. Remember, no one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Don’t give it. If your ideas are easily accepted, they are probably wrong. Most of the real great discoveries were first rejected and turned down for publication. There is a direct relationship between the unusual nature of a new discovery and the resistance to acceptance.

  11. A GOOD PAPER IS SIMPLE, CLEAR AND TO THE POINT. If the average reviewer can’t understand your point, the average reader probably won’t either; the reviewer usually spends more time with your paper. You know what you did, but you won’t be there to explain it to the reader. You don’t have to tell them every experiment you did and bore them to tears, just be sure they understand the most critical ones. A paper can be correct but not informative to the average reader. An example—read your insurance policy. Someone is going to try to confirm your observation; make it easy for them to repeat your work.

  12. IF TWO GOOD INVESTIGATORS DISAGREE AND A PARADOX SEEMS TO EXIST, BOTH OF THEIR DATA ARE PROBABLY CORRECT, AND WE JUST NEED A NEW EXPLANATION TO ENCOMPASS BOTH OBSERVATIONS. Never assume that those who oppose your ideas are stupid. The more you disagree with the data of others, the less chance you have of finding the truth. Try to devise a model that also integrates as many observations of others as possible. All good experiments must be accounted for in the end. You are not the only one who can do a good experiment.

  13. GIVE EVERYONE CREDIT. You are not the first one to study this problem, nor will you be the last. Remember, the ones reviewing and judging your paper have already worked in the same field and they also know who did what. Give the true credit where it is due. Your reputation will be made by all of your studies and by how professional you are.

  14. DO NOT BE FOOLED BY THE AUTHORITY OF THE PRINTED PAGE. The observation of the “proof” might be correct, but how was the experiment conducted? Most of what you and I think today will appear silly in 20 years. At least, we can do our best. Keep in mind the limitations and state them.

  15. MANY BRIGHT PEOPLE ARE PARALYZED BY NEGATIVE THINKING. They are often busy trying to prove someone wrong instead of trying to find out what is right or new. Every experiment, yours and others, is limited and is only an approximation. Look for clues because few things are ever proven. Test all theories.

  16. THE MOST IMPORTANT INGREDIENTS ARE HONESTY, DESIRE, CLEAR THINKING, CONFIDENCE AND HARD WORK. If you aren’t willing to work long, hard hours and sacrifice in pursuit of this goal, then you are not willing to pay the price

IN CONCLUSION: If you are lucky, the world will be paying you a modest salary for what you consider your hobby, and you, in turn, will be contributing to some important answers for our present and future society. As you teach and lead, you will amplify your efforts and those of others, and if appropriate, the influence will continue after you cease. What you learn from courses, lectures and books that are reflected in your course grades will be a very small fraction of your FINAL EXAM. Good luck in your careers.


The Donald S. Coffey Professor of Urology, professor of oncology, and professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences, Johns Hopkins Hospital