Paul Marks, Who Pushed Sloan Kettering to Greatness, Dies at 93

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.

His son Andrew said the cause was a combination of pulmonary fibrosis and a more recent emergence of lung cancer that was untreatable because of the fibrosis.

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.

Unusually, Dr. Marks combined the attributes of an accomplished scientist, a talented doctor, an effective administrator and a charismatic leader. Coming to the job when the field of molecular biology was exploding, he wanted to apply the benefits of that emerging field, which traces the interactions of cells and biological processes at the molecular level, to cancer.

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.

Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

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. But the institution was still in the process of becoming great when he arrived in 1989, and, Dr. Massagué recalled, “it was a gamble” to join. For those who had faith in the vision that guided Dr. Marks, he said, “You really wanted to join it.”

Once hired, Dr. Massagué said, researchers were free to explore, having essentially been told, “You will not be told to work on cancer — we know that what you work on will be relevant to cancer ultimately.” But there was a caveat, he said: “We will expect to see spectacular research.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering’s research and hospital arms had historically been separate; Dr. Marks merged them. Within the hospital, he encouraged the creation of integrated medical teams to coordinate patient care; created a research and treatment center devoted to breast cancer; and established the first center devoted to pain management for cancer patients.

He also continued his own research while running the institution, finding genetic connections to the blood diseases known as thalassemias and developing a targeted therapy for some cancers.

Joseph Goldstein, chairman of the department of molecular genetics at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, explained Dr. Marks’s success by referring to “La Clairvoyance,” a self-portrait by René Magritte in which the artist is looking at an egg but painting a bird in flight. “Paul looked at young scientists and envisioned the great success they would achieve,” Dr. Goldstein said.

In Dr. Marks’s own research, “he looked at cancer cells and envisioned they could be tamed by a novel approach,” Dr. Goldstein said. And in 1980, he continued, “Paul looked at what was at the time a stodgy Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and envisioned the great clinical and research enterprise that it could become — and indeed did become.”

Credit…Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Paul Alan Marks was born on Aug. 16, 1926, in Mahanoy City, Pa., in coal country, to Robert and Sarah (Bohorad) Marks. His mother’s parents had a clothing store in the area, and his father soon opened one as well.

When Paul was 4½ years old, his mother, who was pregnant, died in a fall down the stairs at her parents’ store. His father disappeared from his life for the next five years. In his memoir, Dr. Marks recalled that he bounced “between beds and couches, with aunts, uncles and my grandparents” until his father showed up again, with a new wife and son, and took Paul back.

He attended Samuel J. Tilden High School in Brooklyn, where a teacher who had lost his son in World War II took an interest in this promising young man and persuaded him to apply to Columbia University. He received a full scholarship, received his bachelor’s degree in 1945 and graduated from Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1949.

He was dean of the Columbia medical school from 1970 to 1973 its vice president for medical sciences from 1973 to 1980.

Over his long career, Dr. Marks published more than 350 articles in scientific journals. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science.

He retired from Memorial Sloan Kettering in 1999.

Dr. Marks married Joan Rosen in 1953. In addition to his son Andrew, he is survived by her; another son, Matthew; a daughter, Elizabeth; six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and a half brother, Laurence.

Andrew Marks is chairman of the physiology and cellular biophysics department at the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Matthew Marks is an art dealer. And Elizabeth Marks worked with Matthew until her retirement. When asked what he might have done had he not pursued science or medicine, Dr. Marks once replied, “I would be a curator in a good museum.”

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