Dr. Judah Folkman died on Monday, changing planes in Denver. He was 74. Here is The New York Times obit.

His research into cancer might someday win him a share of a Nobel Prize for Medicine, alas posthumously. For several decades, he focused on his method of fighting cancer: limiting angiogenesis, denying cancer cells the increased flow of blood they commandeer for growth.

His father, an early teacher of mine, Rabbi Jerome Folkman, said of his son, "He will someday win the Nobel Prize."

But the younger Dr. Folkman didn’t overpromise. He was exceedingly smart, exceedingly humble. I heard him once say, "All we’ve really proven is that we can take really good care of sick mice." He said this when he returned to Columbus to speak to the Crichton Club in 2000 to present a talk entitled "The Best Laid Plans of Mice for Men and Women."

He told several memorable, inspiring stories that evening. While they aren’t strictly my stories to tell, I mean to honor him by recording three here.

"Be a Rabbi-Like Doctor"
When young Judah Folkman realized that he wanted to become a doctor, he informed his father. The rabbi said, "No. I am a rabbi. You will be a rabbi."

"But I want to be a doctor," Judah argued. The argument went back and forth, surely measuring the relative value of each profession’s contribution to the lives of others.

"All right, then," conceded the father. "Be a doctor. But be a rabbi-like doctor."

Dr. Folkman found opportunities to be a rabbi-like doctor. He told a story of a woman who collapsed on his office floor, distraught over the birth defects of her child. "Why me?" she cried. "Why me?"

Dr. Folkman referred to his father’s advice about being a rabbi-like doctor and suggested: "Perhaps this, life’s greatest challenge, is also your greatest opportunity. Perhaps you are meant to do great things with the situation that has been forced upon you."

She stood up — and founded a national organization to help families deal with this particular challenge.

The Making Of The Doctor

But much earlier, after receiving his father’s blessing to become a (rabbi-like) doctor, young Judah wanted to add to his fine education at Bexley High School. He asked a surgeon for permission to shadow him in the hospital. On the first day, the surgeon asked, "Why do you want to shadow me?"

"Because I want to become a surgeon," Judah answered.

"You want to become a surgeon?" asked the surgeon. "Well then, don’t follow me around here. Here, take this." — handing him a business card — "Meet me at my veterinary clinic.  I’ll teach you how to become a surgeon."

So, Judah starts visiting the veterinary clinic every day. During the first week, they let him watch surgery. The second week, they invite him to sew up. The third week, he’s allowed to make initial incisions. "The fourth week," Dr. Folkman recounted, "They told me to open up at 10, because they were going to come in late."

While this sounds cavalier of the veterinary clinic, think of the impact on the aspiring teenage doctor. "When I arrived at Harvard Medical School," he said, "I had performed more than thousands of surgeries on sentient beings. None of my peers had cut into anything living. This is like arriving at Juilliard having never picked up a violin. There are essential tactile aspects to surgery. I was way ahead."

"Invite me to the wedding."

As a surgeon at Boston Children’s, Dr. Folkman operated on newborn babies. The surgery surely must be difficult, but so is taking the newborn patient away from the new parents.

"Mama wants to know whether the baby will live. Papa wants to know whether the son will grow up to play football," said Dr. Folkman. "And I didn’t have time to talk to them. I needed to get that baby and get right into surgery." So he found that he could minimize that hard conversation by saying:

"Hello, I’m Dr. Folkman. I need to operate on your child right now."

He would take the child in his arms and look at the parents, saying:

"Invite me to her (or his) wedding."

This brilliant comment — "Invite me to her wedding." — surely saved innumerable lives by moving the patient into surgery without delay.

Moreover, Dr. Folkman reported to the Crichton Club audience in 2000, "I now receive wedding invitations. And in those invitations are so many checks that they fund two full-time doctoral students."

During the reception after his speech in 2000, Alisa and I summoned the courage to approach him. He was, at once, warm and welcoming, a rabbi-like doctor. Alisa described the cancer diagnosis and treatment of a relative who was on drugs based on his research. Dr. Folkman offered encouragement and hope.

I know of one patient whose cancer has been successfully addressed by Dr. Folkman’s research. I’m sure there are a multitude of grateful survivors.

May his name be for us a blessing. May his mourners be comforted.