Paul Marks Purged Old Guard in Order to Recruit New Talent for His Vision of Cancer Research

One important question, not addressed in the obituary quoted below, is the extent to which Marks’s vision for cancer research was farsighted and the extent to which it was misguided. Another important related issue is Marks’s role in support of Nixon’s centrally planned war on cancer.

(p. B11) Paul A. Marks, who transformed Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center into one of the world’s leading institutions for research and treatment of cancer, died on April 28 at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

. . .

Memorial Sloan Kettering today is very different from the institution Dr. Marks joined in 1980 as president and chief executive. It was still reeling from a scientific scandal in the 1970s involving crudely falsified data. It was also behind the times, focused more on surgical interventions than on the developing frontiers of biological science.

“Frankly, it was an institution that really needed surgery from top to bottom, and Marks was the right guy,” James Rothman, chairman of the Yale School of Medicine’s department of cell biology, said in a phone interview.

. . .

The timing was ideal, said Richard Axel, a neuroscientist and molecular biologist in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University Medical Center. Dr. Marks, he said, energized the institution to pursue the alterations in DNA that cause tumors, doing so at the very moment that it was becoming possible “to truly study DNA, to pet it, to clone it, to determine its sequence.”

What followed was a purge of much of the institution’s old guard, with attendant turmoil and alienation for many of those involved. Dr. Marks instituted a tenure system with a tough review process, and dozens of scientists left between 1982 and 1986. A 1987 article about Dr. Marks in The New York Times Magazine noted that “there are researchers who call Marks ‘Caligula,’ ‘Attila the Hun’ or simply ‘the monster.’”

The article described a scene in his laboratory during his Columbia days when Dr. Marks “grabbed a man by the throat and dragged him across a table.” His wife, Joan Marks, then head of graduate programs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., said in the article, “He can be brutal,” adding, “He really doesn’t understand why people don’t work 97 hours a day, and why they don’t care as much as he cares.”

In his memoir, “On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution” (2014, with the former Times reporter James Sterngold), Dr. Marks said he had been embarrassed to see the incident recounted in the article. While he didn’t deny that it had happened, he said that he had actually grabbed the man by both arms, not the throat, and shaken him.

For all of the sharpness of his elbows, Dr. Rothman of Yale said, there was also charm. Dr. Marks, he said, “projected at once a kind of a deep warmth and, at the same time, a formidable aspect.”

Dr. Marks was known for a sharp eye in recruiting talent. “He had an uncanny ability to attract these great scientists from all over the nation,” said Joan Massagué, the director of the Sloan Kettering Institute, the institution’s experimental research arm.

For the full obituary, see:

John Schwartz. “Paul Marks, 93, Administrator Who Pushed Memorial Sloan Kettering to Top-Tier Status.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 7, 2020): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated May 6, 2019 and has the title “Paul Marks, Who Pushed Sloan Kettering to Greatness, Dies at 93.”)

Marks’s memoir, mentioned above, is:

Marks, Paul, and James Sterngold. On the Cancer Frontier: One Man, One Disease, and a Medical Revolution. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2014.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.