Donald S. Coffey. a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine teacher and prostate cancer scientist who researched why malignant cells reproduce so erratically, died of heart failure Nov. 9 at his Catonsville home. He was 85.
“As the patriarch of prostate cancer research, his teaching influenced entire generations of cancer researchers worldwide,” said Dr. Walter Isaacs, who worked with him at Johns Hopkins. “He was the original pioneer of bench-to-bedside research, now known as translational medicine. He was innovative, always thinking and full of creativity. He changed people’s lives in a single hour. It’s impossible to exaggerate the impact he had.”
Born in Bristol, Va., Dr. Coffey was the son of Edwin Douglas Coffey, who operated a gas station, and Loulsa Mayo Straley,. He attended King College in nearby Bristol, Tenn., and then earned a bachelor’s degree at East Tennessee State University. He was later rejected by 20 graduate schools.
“A dyslexic, he struggled through high school with C's,” according to a 1996 article in The Baltimore Sun. “But Coffey worked hard. … Along the way, he worked in a bakery and a textile mill that made rayon tire cord. It was in the bakery that he got the idea to determine his future through meditation, a technique that he heard was practiced by Native Americans.”
"I didn't have anything else to do," Dr. Coffey said in the article. "I had to feed this machine like a robot. It was not an easy thing to do. Thinking about not thinking is thinking." But he resolved to meditate for two weeks. "All of a sudden, I got this overpowering feeling that I should work on cancer.”
Dr. Coffey, his wife and a daughter moved to Baltimore. He initially worked as a radar antenna engineer at the Westinghouse Corp.
“He was attending night classes at Johns Hopkins’ McCoy College when he saw a notice on a board that they needed someone to wash glasses at the Brady Lab,” said his wife, Eula Cosby Coffey. “They worked out an arrangement where he could work at night.”
He gained the attention of co-workers and was eventually given a job as research director at Johns Hopkins’ Brady Urological Research Laboratory — at a $13,000 pay cut from his Westinghouse job.
By 1964, he had earned a doctorate in physiological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins medical school..
He worked with Johns Hopkins scientists Drew Pardoll and Bert Vogelstein to study the nuclear protein matrix, researching cancer immunology and genetics..
Colleagues said Dr. Coffey spoke in easily understood, colloquial terms. He described cancers and their DNA as a musical tape gone crazy.
“Cancer is like your body’s genetic tape playing the wrong song at the wrong time,” he said in a 2013 Johns Hopkins Medicine profile. “The tape is all mixed up and contains errors.”
The profile spoke of him as “a jovial, bespectacled, Southern-speaking Ben Franklin look-alike.”
During his time at Hopkins, Dr. Coffey was named a distinguished professor of urology, as well as a professor of oncology, pharmacology. molecular sciences and pathology. He was also on the Applied Physics Laboratory’s staff.
Dr. Coffey, the 1997 president of the American Association for Cancer Research, was a vocal advocate for greater cancer research funding.
He received the Fuller Award and Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Urological Association, an American Cancer Society Distinguished Service Award, and the Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research.
“He may be the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. His impact on cancer and the people who will ultimately solve the cancer problem is immeasurable,” said Dr. William Nelson, director of Johns Hopkins’ Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center, who trained under Dr. Coffey.
In a statement, the American Association for Cancer Research said, “He was an internationally recognized research scientist who made seminal contributions to numerous areas of cancer research.”
Colleagues said Dr. Coffey was a beloved teacher who guided young medical students and researchers.
“He was well known for using Slinkies, soap bubbles and soda cans to illustrate a point,” said the 2013 Hopkins profile. “For his nuclear matrix work, he bought a jigsaw and built an award-winning scale model, 175 feet long, of a relaxed single loop of DNA magnified 25 thousand times.”
Dr. Coffey hosted an annual St. Patrick’s Day lecture on the origins of man’s creativity.
Recently, the Brady Urological Institute produced a full-length film about Dr. Coffey and his legacy.
He was an ardent Baltimore Colts fan. “He was very disappointed when they were taken away,” said his wife. “He went on to love the Ravens.”
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Holy Comforter, 130 W. Seminary Ave. in Lutherville.
In addition to his wife of 64 years, survivors include two daughters, Kathryn C. Craighead of Lutherville and Carol C. Burns of Catonsville; a sister, Kerry Hale of Bristol; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.