Fred Hutch, UW biostatistics ‘giant’ Norman Breslow dies

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Fred Hutch, UW biostatistics ‘giant’ Norman Breslow dies

World-renowned public health researcher saved lives, inspired young scientists

Dec. 21, 2015
Dr. Norm Breslow

Dr. Norm Breslow (left) with friend and fellow Fred Hutch researcher Dr. David Thomas in the Torres del Paine in Chile, in 2010. Breslow's love of the outdoors and mountains began at a young age. He climbed the Matterhorn at age 16.

Photo courtesy of David Thomas

Scientist, scholar and internationally acclaimed leader in the field of modern biostatistics Dr. Norman E. Breslow died December 9 of prostate cancer. He was 74.

Breslow spent nearly 40 years with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Public Health Sciences Division and 50 years contributing to public health at the University of Washington. Over that span, he transformed the realms of biostatistics and epidemiology – enhancing the quality of studies, mentoring young researchers, writing seminal books on statistical methods in cancer research and helping to create biostatistical tests and tools that still bear his name.

He also had a profound impact on the lives of thousands of young cancer patients by helping to found and lead the National Wilms Tumor Study and its Data and Statistical Center, a Fred Hutch-based national registry dedicated to improving the treatment of a rare kidney cancer that tends to strike children under 5. His 40 years of guidance and study design not only helped kids with this type of cancer live longer, it reduced the intensity and duration of their treatment.

“Norm's death is a great loss to those of us who were his friends and colleagues during his long career at the Hutch and UW,” said Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division. “We will miss his insightful mind, his graciousness and his good humor.”

To many, such as Dr. Patrick Heagerty, chair of the UW Biostatistics Department, Breslow was both a great man and a great mind.

“Norm was a giant, and one who defined the ideals that characterize a scholar and mentor,” he said. “I was blessed to work with him for 20 years, and will always have his commitment, courage and passion for inspiration.”

Dr. Norm Breslow

Dr. Norman Breslow, who died December 9, had a profound effect on the field of modern biostatistics as well as the lives of young children diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer known as Wilms tumor.

Fred Hutch file photo

The ideal biostatistician

The son of Dr. Lester Breslow, an epidemiologist and public health leader who proved scientifically that healthier habits lead to longer lives, Breslow majored in math at Reed College and, subsequently, earned his doctorate in statistics at Stanford University.

Fred Hutch biostatistician Dr. Ruth Etzioni, who mentored under him as a postdoctoral fellow and reconnected with him in later years, said this upbringing may have been one reason Breslow had the “unique ability to have one foot in biostatistical methods and another in the epidemiology of cancer.”

“There are a lot of outstanding methodologists but few people who really straddle these disciplines and have made seminal contributions to multiple disciplines,” she said. “But that’s what he was. He had a lot of greatness. He had a brilliant mind.”

For many academic leaders, Breslow defined the ideal biostatistician: a deeply committed scholar and scientist who constantly worked to advance the field by nurturing the careers of young researchers, striving to make biostatistics accessible and collaborating with colleagues globally through his involvement in the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization.  

Fred Hutch’s Dr. Ross Prentice, former director of PHS, called him a “major force” whose work was characterized by persistence, rigor and depth of engagement in substantive aspects.

“His accessible and careful writing has impacted and enhanced biomedical research worldwide,” he said.

An inspiring mentor

Indeed, his two books Statistical Methods in Cancer Research I and II, co-written with Dr. Nicholas E. Day, became essential texts for both epidemiologists and statisticians in the field of cancer research, and many of the young scientists he mentored have gone on to become leaders in the field.

“It was truly a privilege to be Norm’s student,” said Dr. Xihong Lin, professor and chair of biostatistics at Harvard University. “He was an inspiring, supportive, and caring mentor … and a remarkable human being. His high scientific standard, deep commitment to excellence, outstanding leadership style, sincere dedication to our profession and strong professional ethics have had a profound impact on me. He is my lifetime role model.”

The longtime biostatistician was also keenly interested in the biology of cancer and in improving both treatment and outcomes for patients. 

“He was an extremely strong and world-renowned statistician from a mathematical standpoint and a creative standpoint,” said Dr. Wendy Leisenring, a Fred Hutch clinical researcher and public health biostatistician who knew Breslow for 23 years. “But he also really loved the science part and he could speak to oncologists and other physicians on their level about the treatments. His focus was getting at the crux of a scientific question through good study design and good methods of analysis.”

Breslow’s many honors include the Spiegelman Gold Medal from the American Public Health Association, the Marvin Zelen Leadership award in Statistical Science from Harvard University, the Snedecor and R.A. Fisher awards from the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies and the Medal of Honor from the IARC.  He also had the singular distinction of simultaneous membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science with his late father.

An avid outdoorsman and mountaineer

Breslow was equally passionate about experiencing the world. He often traveled to England, Germany, Switzerland and France for work, and he and his wife, Gayle, spent part of each year in Provence, France, where they maintained a second home.

An avid outdoorsman, Breslow regularly hiked and camped with his family in the Cascade Range and was a member of the Mountaineers Club in Seattle, the Sierra Club and Club alpin francais.

He found mountains particularly compelling.

At the age of 16, he climbed the Matterhorn in Europe, and that love for both adventure and bravado continued throughout his life. He scaled mountains, roamed solo through rural Mexico, winter camped in Canada, trekked through Tibet, Nepal and Patagonia and even skied down Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe.

“We did a lot of hiking, skiing, ski mountaineering, and mountain climbing over the years,” said Dr. David Thomas, a Fred Hutch epidemiologist who met Breslow at the UW School of Public Health and remained close with him for 40 years. “We were kindred souls in that respect. I figured out that we’ve hiked and climbed together on five continents.”

And while Breslow was both brilliant and bold, he also had a soft side – especially for children.

“When my daughter was 12, she came down with a serious illness and was at the UW hospital,” said Thomas. “And guess who came over to see her? He was a busy professor at the university but he was also an extremely genuine person. He was a special guy in that respect.”

It’s this kind of compassion and dedication – offered to the very young and the very sick, day after day, decade after decade – that many will remember.

“His enduring legacy will be the children,” said Dr. Giulio D’Angio, professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and former head of the Wilms Tumor Study. “Thousands on thousands of them around the world, and their children, are alive and thriving because of [him].”

Dr. Norm Breslow is survived by his wife Gayle, daughters Lauren Basson and Sara Jo Breslow, grandchildren Benjamin and Ayelet Basson, brothers Jack and Stephen, nephew Paul, and stepmother Devra. The family requests that any memorial contributions be directed towards the Norman Breslow Endowed Professorship in Biostatistics at the University of Washington.

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she also writes the breast cancer blog doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Reach her at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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