I’m still processing the fact that I won’t get to spend time with Clara Derber Bloomfield, MD, again.
This little force of nature was the reason I moved from Australia to the United States in 1991.
When I feel sadness, I sometimes find it helpful to write about it — often in HemOnc Today. Consider how I deal with the performance of our national administration, the EPA, and soon the federal dysfunction in dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
That said, I have read the various epitaphs to this amazing person, but I feel that many of them miss the mark somewhat. They reflect a saint (which Clara never was and didn’t wish to be) rather than a peppy, spicy, courageous, clever and strategic scientific thinker, politician and iconoclast.
A great rapport
Let’s cover the pro forma eulogy information first.
CDB was raised in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, her parents being a feminist attorney and a labor economist. Her early education was at University of Wisconsin and San Diego State University, and she received her doctor of medicine from The University of Chicago.
While in Illinois, she became an activist opposed to the Vietnam War and was rumored to have been associated with the Weathermen, indicating the passion and vehemence that she brought to the causes in which she believed.
Her fellowship in hematology/oncology was at University of Minnesota, where she remained as faculty.
That was a halcyon period in which Clara interfaced with William J. Hrushesky, MD, David D. Hurd, MD, Bruce A. Peterson, MD, Nicholas J. Vogelzang, MD, FASCO, FACP, George J. Bosl, MD, FASCO, MACP, and many other luminaries of hematology and oncology of the past 40 years.
In fact, it was in the Masonic Cancer Center that Clara and I first met.
“You must be the new guy who just did his PhD in London. Welcome to this XXXX place!” boomed out from a tiny bespectacled person, standing arms akimbo in the hallway.
I didn’t think much more about this — I was embedded in B.J. Kennedy, MD’s solid tumor team — until a decade later.
Clara eventually moved to Buffalo to take on roles as chair of the department of medicine at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and division chair at State University of New York at Buffalo.
She recruited actively and effectively, securing the late Geoffrey P. Herzig, MD, as her chair of hematologic oncology, and demonstrated an eye for great young talent, including junior faculty like Michael Caligiuri, MD, Steven Bernstein, MD, Philip McCarthy, MD, Myron S. Czuczman, MD, Ellis Levine, MD, and many other key players of the 1990s to the current era.
Clara was a compelling recruiter, and attracted me to leave the pleasant climes of Sydney for the incandescent Buffalo, New York, to a role as chief of solid tumor oncology and investigational therapeutics.
It was surprising that CDB and I developed a great rapport — both with strident personalities and the philosophy of “I’d like to agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong!”
Clara acknowledged that she didn’t know much about solid tumor oncology, as she didn’t think it was all that important, but she was content to leave me to run that part of her department.
To my recollection, in the 7 years we worked together, we didn’t have a major fight. She tolerated my bad behavior and I tolerated hers, and we worked extremely well in tandem with Geoff Herzig.
Geoff and I showed her little respect, but we both felt an abiding and deep affection and respect for her, and we had great times together — glasses of wine at her place on the lake after work, characterized by peals of laughter, derision focused on the idiocy du jour, and each of us occasionally — or regularly in Geoff’s case — acting as her chauffeur.
It was during that period that her relationship (leading to marriage) with the extraordinarily gifted medical geneticist and scientist Albert de la Chappelle, MD, PhD, burgeoned, and we all had the benefit of his increasing visits to Buffalo. However, in the summers, Clara moved to Helsinki and took on her role as a baroness of the Finnish Court — and, by reputation, was able to soften her rhetoric and undertake the role with grace and calm.
By the time we worked together, Clara didn’t do much clinical work, focusing more on administration, guidance, science and leadership, trying to keep the Roswell Park administration in line.
She worked very effectively with Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, then the chair of surgery, and other clinical and scientific leaders. This was when she had an emerging reputation as a leading leukemia biologist.
However, at one point, a decision was taken to move all the clinical investigators — many of whom also ran labs — into the role of purely clinical staff. That was when I saw the real steel that characterized Clara. Within a short period, the staff of the department of medicine had hired a team of attorneys, and took Roswell Park and the state of New York to court.
I felt sorry for New York. They didn’t understand the general who was leading the opposing force. For the better part of a year, Clara strategically led the cause, taught our attorneys about labor law, and looked triumphant when she announced that the issue had been settled out of court and the investigators of the department would be returning to the roles for which they had been hired.
Clara loved to talk about the law and justice, especially with our lawyers in the evenings, so the legal bills to our group were not inconsequential. Around that time, I was also president of the medical staff at Roswell Park, and this illustrated Clara’s fierce loyalty to her team. On occasion, I was in an extremely awkward position, sandwiched between Clara and the institute administration; yet, she never created a situation where this became a problem between the two of us, and she let me perform that role to the best of my ability.
At that point, the music had stopped, and many of the department staff moved elsewhere. Clara took over leadership of The Ohio State University’s James Cancer Center and, once again, recruited very strongly.
“Prince Michael” Caligiuri and several of our best accompanied her and resurrected the center, spiraling upward to the zenith of cancer institute function.
My family and I had suffered the cold for long enough and moved to sunny La-La Land; however, I did take a role on Clara’s external advisory board for nearly 10 years and learned a great deal more about how to run a cancer center.
I also learned something important that will serve me well in the future. When the time was right, CDB decided to step down and allowed her replacement, Caligiuri, to take on his new role as director. She took pride in the fact that she had mentored him well and that he was able to take The James to the next level as a world-class cancer research and treatment facility.
I had seen less of CDB in the last few years, with only an occasional visit at ASCO. She received most of the major cancer research accolades — and certainly deserved them.
I liked Levine’s comment that he had expected her to live to be the oldest woman in America. I’m so sad that this did not occur, as fate has robbed us all of an amazing and fearless physician-scientist.
For more information:
Derek Raghavan, MD, PhD, FACP, FRACP, FASCO, is HemOnc Today’s Chief Medical Editor for Oncology. He also is president of Levine Cancer Institute at Atrium Health. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclosure: Raghavan reports no relevant financial disclosures.