Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Dr. Alan Rabson at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. Dr. Rabson helped define the field of cancer pathology, figured out why shingles and recurrent cold sores occur and helped lead the National Cancer Institute into new eras over several decades.

The National Cancer Institute via The New York Times

Dr. Alan Rabson, who helped define the field of cancer pathology, who figured out why shingles and recurrent cold sores occur and who helped lead the National Cancer Institute into new eras over several decades, died on July 4 in Skillman, N.J. He was 92.

The cause was complications of vascular disease, his son, Dr. Arnold . Rabson, said.

In addition to his scientific and administrative achievements, colleagues say, what made Dr. Rabson stand out were his kindness, his empathy, his geniality and his willingness to help anyone with a cancer diagnosis who was seeking advice or a referral to an oncologist.

Story continues below advertisement

“You could not be in his presence without smiling,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, of which the National Cancer Institute is part. Dr. Rabson made his mark as a cancer pathologist in the 1950s. “He taught generations of pathologists to look into a microscope and tell if what they were looking at was cancer,” Dr. Collins said. “He created a field of excellence.”

He also studied viruses and their role in causing cancer, an area of intense interest in the 1950s and 60s. Around that time, he figured out that herpes viruses – which, depending on the variety, can cause chickenpox or cold sores – can hide in nerves after the initial infection is gone. The chickenpox virus can emerge decades later in the form of shingles, an excruciatingly painful rash. The cold sore type can periodically re-emerge, causing recurrent sores.

For most of his life, Dr. Rabson was an administrator, serving as director of what is now known as the Division of Cancer Biology at the National Cancer Institute, in Bethesda, Md., from 1975 until 1995, then as deputy director of the institute itself from 1995 until his retirement in 2015.

As a sideline, Dr. Rabson helped cancer patients who needed advice or a referral, at no charge.

Starting in the late 1950s, word got out that if you had cancer and needed help, all you had to do was call Al Rabson. He would take calls from anyone, whether they were members of Congress, celebrities or taxi drivers. He would answer their questions, counsel them and give referrals.

“People would call me and say: ‘Hey, I know you are a doctor at the National Institutes of Health. Do you know somebody who could help me?’” Dr. Collins recalled. “I would say, ‘I know exactly the right person.’”

In addition to his son, who is director of the Child Health Institute of New Jersey and professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, Dr. Rabson leaves a granddaughter and two great-grandsons.

Story continues below advertisement

He was born Alan Saul Rabinowitz in Brooklyn on July 1, 1926, and grew up in Jamaica, Queens. His parents, Abraham and Florence Rabinowitz, owned a candy store.

After high school, Dr. Rabson went to Rochester University, where he did biology research. He then applied to medical schools. All but one – the Long Island College of Medicine, now SUNY Downstate – rejected him because they had already filled their quotas of Jews, Arnold Rabson said. The Long Island College had just gotten started and still had some slots open.

There, he made it his goal to become a pathologist. He also wound up marrying one, Dr. Ruth Kirschstein. The two “were the original power couple,” said Dr. Douglas Lowy, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute.

It was a difficult time for women in science, especially Jewish women, who faced both gender bias and anti-Semitism. As Dr. Rabson travelled, establishing his career, “she was always the trailing spouse,” their son said.

But she was determined to pursue her goals. She had applied to some 50 medical schools before she found one that would take her: Tulane University in New Orleans. And she was determined to have a career as a medical scientist.

In 1955, Dr. Rabson arrived as a pathology anatomy resident at the National Institutes of Health, where he did research in pathology. Dr. Kirschstein arrived as a clinical pathology resident and developed a safety test for the polio vaccine.

Story continues below advertisement

Dr. Kirschstein also rose through the ranks of administrators at the National Institutes of Health. In 1974, she became the first woman to head one of the institutes, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Dr. Rabson and Dr. Kirschstein lived in a modest home on the campus of the institutes and rarely left, Dr. Collins said. Dr. Rabson remained there after Dr. Kirschstein died of cancer in 2009, and did not leave until about three years ago, when, disabled by arthritis and vascular disease, he moved to an assisted-living facility near his son.

“They both inspired me to become a physician and, even more specifically, a physician who does research,” Arnold Rabson said. Science, he said, “was what was talked about at the dinner table.”

“We would read genetics textbooks at night,” he continued. “I was looking through a microscope when I was 14 or 15.”

And, of course, there were those phone calls and e-mails from people seeking help.

“Every evening he would be on the phone” talking to desperate patients, the son said.

Story continues below advertisement

In one of their many conversations, Dr. Collins said, Dr. Rabson told him, “This is why I went into medicine – to help people.”

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies