Morton Coleman, MD, is the director of the Center for Lymphoma
and Myeloma at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center and
is clinical professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is also
the Editor of the Hematologic Malignancies section of the HemOnc
Today Editorial Board.
He has served as member or chairman of numerous medical and scientific
committees and has received many honors, including those from Old Dominion
University, the Lymphoma Research Foundation, and Weill Cornell Medical
College. A named professorship at Weill Cornell has also been established in
his honor. Dr. Coleman has annually been designated one of America’s Top
Doctors by Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. and one of New York
Magazine’s Top Doctors.
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not practicing medicine?
I devote a great deal of time to my family, particularly my
grandchildren who are a major source of joy for my wife and me. But we also
like to travel. We often travel with Arthur Topilow (HemOnc
Today’s In Practice Columnist) and his wife Judy. We have
‘amassed’ an interesting coterie of friends, around 10 people, who
travel together. We arrange our own unique tours. It’s simply a great deal
We have a division of labor — our wives plan the trips, Arthur
brings his portable piano (he’s a pied piper with his music), a friend
from Dallas who was a chief financial officer handles the charges and tips, and
I’m the head negotiator, court jester, and de facto ring leader. When we
were in China, I was designated Chairman Mort instead of Chairman Mao in part
because I would challenge our guide’s version of history, but I have yet
to author a little red book!
My preference for travel though is to do something other than sit on a
bus. I prefer working or being engaged in the country I happen to be visiting.
Professionally I have been involved in the care of a number of newsworthy or
famous individuals, and my travels have taken me from Egypt, where I attended
the Shah, to Nepal and the former royal family.
I have lived in Europe and been to just about every European capital. I
know London, Paris and Rome well enough to make my way about without a map. I
also have seen much of South America and some of Africa. So my favorite travel
destinations now are a bit off-beat and a little more adventuresome. I’ve
been to the Galapagos, Antarctica, Easter Island, Alaska for salmon fishing,
and on an expedition up river in the Amazon with the University of Manaus,
which enabled me to become a member of the Explorers Club. On many of these
adventures, Arthur has been my partner in crime. One place I have yet to see is
Machu Pichu, which is the next place on my visit agenda.
If you hadn’t gone into oncology or medicine, what would you
If I had not grown up in the South where there was not much snow, and
had I discovered skiing at an early age, no doubt as a young man I would have
been a ski bum. As an adult though, I would have chosen among being a tenor at
the Met, a litigator, and a molecular biologist trying to unlock the secrets of
To be honest though, I can’t conceive of my life without having
been a doctor. So much of how we are identified is by what we do. If I had to
do it all over again, I would still have chosen not only to be a physician but
also doing just what I have done. I view medicine as more than a business or a
profession, but as a calling. There are few places where you can do good and do
well all at once. You don’t get rich in medicine, but you do make a decent
enough living and you make a difference in people’s lives.
I have read that a large number of oncologists suffer from a mild degree
of depression, which is understandable in light of the pressures from
government, lawyers, HMOs and what is generally achieved in solid tumors. But
lymphoma and myeloma represent a different challenge altogether since we often
cure or, at least, genuinely make people better. I have been lucky not only in
choosing treatable cancers but in varying what I do professionally. In addition
to a large clinical practice, I have been engaged in research, lecturing,
teaching, the biotech industry and pro bono activities. The variety I believe
has enabled me to still find medicine exciting and rewarding.
What would you consider one of your biggest successes in your
I don’t think in terms of any one single achievement. My earliest
achievement, though, in clinical research was in originating what has remained
for decades the standard chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. But we at
Cornell were the first to promote alternating sequences of chemotherapy and to
show that remission in Hodgkin’s lymphoma can be achieved early and that
more therapy is simply more toxicity.
We are still trying to abbreviate therapy even further by tailoring
therapy to the rapidity of response as determined by PET scanning. Among other
contributions, we have promoted infusional therapy, metronomic therapy,
combination monoclonal antibody therapy, and the concept of dose intensity in
lymphoma and myeloma, which was the forerunner to autologous transplantation.
In myeloma, we were the first to combine steroids with novel agents, to
promote the single weekly use of pulse high-dose steroids, which is now the
standard, and to recognize the thrombogenesis of Imids and steroids and its
prevention with aspirin.
As director of the Center of Lymphoma and Myeloma at Cornell, I work
closely with my younger colleagues. It’s been fun and keeps me on my toes.
I would like to think that perhaps my greatest achievement has been to mentor a
number of people, all of whom are clearly now out on their own and have made a
name for themselves in academic and clinical medicine.
Helping the Lymphoma Research Foundation grow and playing a role in
having Cornell respected as a leader in lymphoma and myeloma research gives me
great pleasure as well. Cornell now sponsors the largest annual
Lymphoma-Myeloma Conference in the country.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
The best advice I ever received was from two of my best mentors —
my father and a Dr. Arnold F. Strauss, both of whom gave me the same advice: to
be a doctor. During my early college years I had excelled at chemistry, and was
considering becoming a chemist, but virtually on his deathbed, my father told
me that he wanted me to be a doctor. He said, “If you want to be a
chemist, become a chemist, but first I want you to be a doctor.” He had
his heart set on having a child who was going to be a doctor, particularly
since he had come from poor circumstances.
The summer between my first and second year in medical school, Dr.
Strauss, out of kindness, hired this Doogie Howser, baby-faced 19-year-old med
student to learn and do autopsies (second year pathology was a snap!). I liked
physiology and was thinking about stopping medical school and first getting a
PhD, but Dr. Strauss told me, “Mort, first become a physician. If you want
to be physiologist after that, do that, but then you’ll be an MD going for
a PhD rather than a bachelor graduate going for a PhD.” With the advice to
be doctor first and foremost, I never looked back.
What do you think will have the biggest influence on oncology in the
next 10 years?
Without a doubt, it’s going to be government, and I’m not sure
it will necessarily be for the better. Scientifically, I think our increasing
understanding of the molecular basis of cancer will enable us to tailor therapy
to the disease and the individual.
What is the last book you read?
I am not much for fiction, although I think some
non-fiction books should be labeled fiction. Currently I am reading “Mao:
The Unknown Story” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday and “Rivals: How
the Power Struggle Between China, India, and Japan Will Shape Our Next
Decade” by Bill Emmett. I have traveled extensively through the Indian
subcontinent and South East Asia on both business and pleasure, and am
fascinated by these emerging giants. I do enjoy reading the
Economist cover to cover weekly for relaxation.
What kind of diet and exercise regimen do you have?
Keeping weight down is simply a matter of eating less
calories: so much in and so much out. The NIH concurs. I think staying thin is
a function of portion control, discipline and luck of the right genes. I do eat
more fish and try to cut back on carbs, but I do love bread, which is my
downfall. If a diet is unpalatable though, most people won’t adhere to it.
With the sports injuries I have acquired over the years,
I have had to give up on tennis, which as a youngster I played almost every
day, and jogging. I occasionally play golf and enjoy being out in the fresh air
with my son or good company, but frankly by the back nine, I am bored.
There is nothing better than walking, particularly when
you have a number of banged up joints. I really enjoy hiking and trekking. I
have trekked with my son in Nepal to see Mt. Everest, to Denali National Park
to get good views of Mt. McKinley, in the Grand Canyon, and in the jungles of
What is your favorite restaurant?
I like Italian. The best restaurant in New York for
Italian food is Il Molino. Another of my favorites is a place called Primavera
on First Avenue. They know exactly what I want and how I like it. Their
mushrooms are fabulous.