Hutch community mourns Robert W. Day

As president and director for 16 years, Day led Fred Hutch's 'momentous' move to South Lake Union
Photo of Robert W. Day
Dr. Robert W. Day was president and director of Fred Hutch from 1981-1997. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

Dr. Robert W. Day, the longest-serving president and director of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the leader who brought into being its campus overlooking Seattle’s South Lake Union, died in his Seattle home on Saturday of lung cancer. He was 87.

“It is a tragic loss for all of us,” said Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Gary Gilliland. “He was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many of us — I personally will be forever grateful to Bob for taking me under his wing when I started here three years ago. 

“He struggled with cancer for many years, but one would never have known it to see him in action. He was such an inspiration in this, as in all things, showing extraordinary strength and courage that matched his wisdom,” Gilliland said.

At the family's request, a memorial celebration will be held from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27, in the Thomas Building at Fred Hutch. The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center or Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

A well-read man who exuded charm and wit, Day was also a competitive and uncompromising advocate, determined to fulfill his vision of the Hutch — that of a growing, thriving center of excellence for basic science, clinical trials and public health and prevention research.

From 1981 until 1997, Day presided over the Hutch during a period when Dr. E. Donnall Thomas’ pioneering bone marrow transplant research drew increasing international attention and earned Thomas the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine. Under Day’s leadership, Fred Hutch established its long-standing position as the top recipient of research grant dollars from the National Cancer Institute.

But Day’s signature achievement was acquisition of the 15-acre site in South Lake Union in a series of transactions from 1988 through 1991 and the subsequent move from the Hutch’s original headquarters on First Hill in Seattle to a 13-building complex now known as the Robert W. Day Campus. A bronze bust of Day gazes across a brick plaza at the center of that campus.

Photo of Drs. Gary Gilliland and Robert Day
Dr. Gary Gilliand, Fred Hutch director and president, said Dr. Day (right) took him "under his wing" when he joined the Hutch three years ago. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

‘He could will things to be done’

With most of the key properties lined up, the Hutch board of trustees approved the plan in October 1989. That move, controversial both within and without the confines of Fred Hutch in the 1990s, is now widely regarded as a masterstroke. Gilliland called it “one of the most important and momentous decisions in the history of the Hutch.”

Research on the campus continues to thrive, room remains for growth, and the Hutch campus today anchors a once rundown South Lake Union district that has become a global center for the convergence of bioscience and information technologies.

“It was frankly nothing short of a miracle,” said Hutch Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Randy Main, who was hired by Day in 1984 and eventually tasked with pulling together the complex financial deals that made the move possible. “But for him, there was just no way it was not going to happen. He could will things to be done.

“It was a stretch and a gamble, but now we have a campus that, were we to lease these buildings today, our costs would be more than double our ownership costs,” said Main. “That is his legacy.”

Those who knew Day well describe him as a complex man, gracious and courtly, but also demanding. “If you came up to an obstacle, he expected you to get around it,” said Joann Cahill, who worked with Day for 17 years as director of grants and contract administration.

Day was an enthusiastic tennis player, skier and angler, but his real passion was for books. Growing up outside Boston in Framingham, Massachusetts, he was drawn to the local library, inspired by an older sister who became a scholar and librarian. He later found a refuge as a Harvard student in the undergraduate library there. “It was just wonderful, and I spent hours at the place,” he told a friend. “It was my education, really.”

Day left Harvard early, transferring directly to the University of Chicago Medical School, attracted in part to the educational philosophy of the university’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, who was a proponent of teaching the Great Books of the Western World as a core of a liberal arts curriculum. As a student, Day attended small, informal dinners at the university with the likes of physicist Enrico Fermi and economist Milton Friedman. He graduated in 1956 with an M.D. and an intense interest in public health.

Day’s connection to public health stretched back prior to his college years. In 1948, his mother enrolled in the famed Framingham Heart Study, which has been tracking the heart health and habits of the Boston-area town residents ever since. In 1971, children of the original participants were asked to enroll, and Day returned to Framingham every three to four years for a checkup.

His academic training and early career in public health forged a commitment that would later shape the Hutch as a leader in the field. Before coming to Seattle in 1969, he was already a rising young star, serving as chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health under the administration of then Gov. Ronald Reagan. There he drafted the first regulations for MediCal, the state’s health care system for the poor under the federal Medicaid program.

Day then spent nearly a decade as dean and professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health. He was serving as a UW representative on the board of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center when founder Dr. William Hutchinson reached out in 1981 and asked him to run the center.

Day was the first to succeed the iconic Hutchinson as president and director, and as such had enormous shoes to fill. A Seattle celebrity himself, “Dr. Bill” had shepherded the growth of his cancer center from the start and named it in memory of his younger brother, the legendary Major League Baseball pitcher and manager Fred Hutchinson, who died in 1964 of cancer at the age of 45. 

Photo of Robert W. Day wearing a blue suite
Robert Day, in an undated photo, looks over the new South Lake Union buildings on what today is called the Robert W. Day campus. Fred Hutch file photo

Taking charge with a strategic vision

As Fred Hutch’s president, Day quickly set about creating his own administrative infrastructure, making his mark with a disciplined hand and a strategic outlook. Facing competition for that talent from new biotechnology companies, and convinced that the Hutch had no room to grow on First Hill, Day soon began looking to consolidate all Hutch operations, which were spreading to downtown Seattle.

That search led him and his team to a neglected neighborhood of warehouses, apartments and light industry — the 15-acre parcel at the south end of Lake Union. After acquiring the land from 37 different interests — the largest assemblage of property in the City of Seattle since the World’s Fair of 1962 — Day launched what became a 10-year process of moving off First Hill to new quarters built on the South Lake Union site.

“Bob had great instincts,” CFO Main said. “He had a kitchen cabinet full of successful business people who weren’t on the board, but were his advisers. He set the vision and expected us to execute it. If you didn’t, you were not around very long.”

Guy Ott, who retired in 2004 as Hutch vice president of Facilities and Operations, was responsible for executing the difficult transition to the new campus.

“The thing that sticks in my mind about Bob Day,” said Ott, “was that if he had trust and confidence that you could do your job, he would allow you to do it, no strings attached. He told you what needed to be done, gave you the resources to do it, and then got out of the way. … I have the highest regard for anyone, besides my dad, for Bob Day. He was the best, and only, person who could have pulled this thing off.”

Dr. Mark Groudine, a molecular biologist at Fred Hutch since 1979 and a special adviser to the Director’s Office, likens Day to an architect who shaped the organizational structure of the Hutch, which remains in place to this day. That architectural vision also informed his push for a single campus. “Bob was steadfast in his vision to have a unified campus that could house all our investigators and staff,” he said.

Establishing Seattle Cancer Care Alliance

In the final years of his presidency, as the phased construction of the new campus was under way, Day oversaw the complex negotiations with the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital that led to the creation of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the clinical care partner of Fred Hutch.

In recent years, Day was a patient at SCCA, getting treatment for a recurrence of lymphoma, one of two cancer diagnoses he faced. In his final years, he battled non-small cell squamous carcinoma, a type of lung cancer.

Today, the South Lake Union district is transformed. Leukemia patients are treated with the most advanced form of immunotherapy at SCCA, which stands at the former site of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Rug Cleaning Company. For years, the Hutch administrative offices at the new campus were housed in former headquarters of Muzak, the famed purveyor of elevator music. That building was eventually demolished for construction of the Robert M. Arnold Building, which today houses the Public Health Sciences Division and other research laboratories.

Dr. Ross Prentice, who directed the Public Health Sciences Division under Day, said his leadership transformed the Hutch into an internationally recognized research organization. “Bob was amazingly adept at showing an interest in everyone involved in the Hutch, from board members to all levels of staff,” Prentice said. “He was a role model in this. I personally benefitted from Bob’s interests and encouragement for well over 40 years.”

bronze bust of Dr. Robert W. Day
A mourner placed flowers at the bronze bust of Dr. Day, in the central plaza of the Robert W. Day campus. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

A researcher and an entrepreneur

After passing the reins in 1997 to Fred Hutch geneticist — and future Nobel laureate — Dr. Lee Hartwell, Day remained on the faculty, continuing to conduct his own research. Notably, he led ongoing studies of the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster on childhood leukemia. He was appointed scientific director of the International Consortium for Research on the Health Effects of Radiation, a study funded by the U.S. Navy to examine the effects of the disaster, which reported its results in 2004. He also became involved in business, co-founding Orca Biosciences, a developer of diagnostic blood tests for early detection of cancer, which merged with the German firm Epigenetics AG in 1999.

In 2005, Day and his wife, C.J. Taylor-Day, founded the Science and Management of Addictions Foundation, with a mission to eliminate the disease of substance addiction in youth by advancing research education and treatment. C.J. died in 2011 after an eight-year battle with ovarian cancer. Day remained chair of the Seattle nonprofit until his passing.

He is survived by the couple’s two daughters, Natalya Bennett, of Riverview, Florida, and Julia Webb, of Mountlake Terrace, Washington; and also by his first wife, Jane Day, and their daughter, Nate Tantum, of Quilcene, Washington, and their son, Christopher, of Seattle; and two grandchildren, Kathleen, of San Francisco, and Tom, of Seattle.

Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs. 

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