Cancer Research Stalwart Rabson Dies
The cancer research and NIH communities are mourning the loss of long-time NCI senior leader Dr. Alan Rabson, who passed away July 4 at the age of 92.
With a distinguished scientific career that spanned six decades and included research on tumor virology and cancer pathology, as well as senior leadership roles at NCI, Rabson was highly respected at NIH and beyond.
Honored time and again for his commitment to science and to advancing cancer research, he was equally known for treating everybody he encountered—whether a member of Congress, a young researcher in training or a patient needing advice—with kindness and respect.
“There have been few people like Alan Rabson,” said NCI director Dr. Ned Sharpless. “The stories of his remarkable history at NCI, his immense dedication to his work and his love for his family are truly inspiring. It is no overstatement to say that we have lost a giant.”
Rabson’s wife of 59 years, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein, also was a highly respected and accomplished scientist at NIH. Kirschstein, who died in 2009, helped organize the research response to the AIDS epidemic and was the first woman to direct an NIH institute, leading the National Institute of General Medical Sciences for two decades.
The couple were known for their deep devotion to NIH and each other. In a 1998 interview, Rabson recounted: “I started [at NIH] by finishing my last year of pathology training at the Clinical Center. My wife and I liked the place so much that we stayed here for the next 42 years.”
From Brooklyn to Bethesda
Born in Brooklyn in 1926, Rabson spent his first two decades mostly in New York, including completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Rochester and his medical degree at the State University of New York.
Remarkably, his first attempt to come to NCI was unsuccessful. Still in medical school, he applied to spend the summer at the institute working for well-known NCI biochemist Dr. Jesse Greenstein. However, it was not to be. Washington, D.C., was simply too hot in the summer and there was no air conditioning at NIH, the eminent scientist explained in response to the young medical student’s request, so he usually worked in Berkeley, Calif., during those months.
During the Korean War, Rabson joined the PHS Commissioned Corps, studying virology at the Communicable Disease Center (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the University of Michigan, and pathology at the PHS Hospital in New Orleans.
He finally arrived at NIH in 1955, as a pathology anatomy resident. Rabson’s career at NCI began not long after, when he was recruited to study tumor-causing viruses and serve as a staff member in NCI’s pathology department at the Clinical Center.
For many years, the NCI Laboratory of Pathology performed the pathology for most of the NIH institutes conducting research at the CC. The mindset that Rabson and his colleagues had towards the many people who participated in CC studies was simple: “We owed them the very, very best we could give them.”
Rabson was also legendary in his willingness to help people facing a cancer diagnosis to find the best options for their care, said NIH director Dr. Francis Collins. Whether it was a member of Congress or a young mother from the heartland, Collins recalled, Rabson always took time to understand the situation, build a relationship with the patient and family and help them sift through myriad possible clinical trials.
“Every year since 2012, the NIH Director’s Award ceremony has included the Alan S. Rabson Award for Clinical Care,” Collins said. “It goes to a deserving employee who demonstrates an exceptional commitment to assisting patients and their families who look to the NIH for help. Al’s half-century of service stands as the epitome of personal dedication to patient care at the National Institutes of Health.”
After 20 years in the pathology department, Rabson was named director of the forerunner to what is now NCI’s Division of Cancer Biology. During that time, he oversaw the division’s transition from an intramural research group that performed its own research to one that also managed the funding of cancer research performed by NCI-supported investigators at institutions across the country.
A Long-Time Leader and Role Model
The final stage of Rabson’s career at NCI began in 1995, when he was named deputy director of the institute by then-NCI director Dr. Richard Klausner.
“He came down to my office on the third floor and he said, ‘Would you be willing to be my deputy?’ And I said, ‘I can’t think of anything nicer,’” Rabson recounted.
Over the following several decades, he was asked by each new director to continue on in the deputy director role.
Current NCI deputy director Dr. Doug Lowy described Rabson’s invaluable service as a sounding board for each director and other NCI leaders on decisions both small and large as among his most important duties.
“He had an inimitable leadership style,” Lowy said. “When you talked with him, he spent most of the time trying to understand what you needed, so he could help you, rather than spending it figuring out how you could help him. He truly believed that if you were successful, he was successful.”
Rabson held clinical professorships at George Washington University and Georgetown University and received multiple awards from the Public Health Service for his clinical work and scientific contributions. He officially retired from federal service in 2015. That same year he was named a scientist emeritus at NCI.