Dr. Richard L. Humphrey, Johns Hopkins oncologist, dies

Dr. Richard Lord Humphrey, a Johns Hopkins physician and pioneering cancer researcher who studied protein disorders and bone marrow cancer, died March 26 at his Lutherville home after a series of strokes. He was 83.

Born in Detroit and raised in Marshall, Mich., he was the son of Dr. Archie Edward Humphrey, a general practitioner, and his wife, Liela Agnes Lord.

He was a Marshall High School graduate and obtained a bachelor’s degree from Albion College.

While in college, he married a classmate, Lauralee Thomas. They were both summa cum laude Albion graduates.

He received his medical schooling at the University of Michigan, where he was class valedictorian. He then moved to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, where he continued his training as an intern and resident in the department of medicine.

He became an associate professor of pathology, oncology and medicine, and was director of the Immunology Laboratory. He was also on the faculty of the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“The two most important lessons he taught me and many others: make science count for patients, and treat patients as family,” said a former student, Dr. Kenneth C. Anderson of Wellesley, Mass. “He first introduced me to academic medicine — the idea that you can carry out research to improve the lives of patients and their families.”

He also said Dr. Humphrey “loved to plan experiments that would yield new information, and ultimately derive new treatments. … His curiosity and enthusiasm were infectious.”

“As a teacher, Dick was a unique treasure, ” Dr. Anderson said. “He selflessly shared his wisdom of clinical and laboratory aspects of protein disorders with students [and] house staff. … His strength was patient-centered bedside teaching.”

Dr. Anderson, now a Kraft Family Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, recalled his days as a student working with Dr. Humphrey in the 1970s. He said their patients with myeloma suffered from bone pain and lived only a few months, and he admired how Dr. Humphrey would “always put patients first, and selflessly comfort them and their families.”

He said Dr. Humphrey’s work, and the inspiration he provided to other cancer researchers, led to new treatments that have helped cancer patients worldwide.

“He was a conscience for all of us to do the right thing,” said Dr. Anderson.

In a Hopkins publication, Dr. Humphrey recalled the early days of his cancer research as a pathologist: “The oncology program consisted of a wooden table, a drawer of pipettes, and a Ph meter,” he said.

In 1977, he created a Diagnostic Immunology Laboratory in the Department of Pathology. In 1999, he moved to a teaching position but continued to work and consulted in the immunology laboratory. He stepped down in 2016.

“I knew Dick as the astute, caring clinician who put his patients ahead of anything else,” said Dr. Thomas Kickler, a Hopkins colleague. “His teaching and mentoring led to a cadre of hematologists and scientists spread across the United States in major cancer centers who have led us to the cure of multiple myeloma.”

A Hopkins statement said Dr. Humphrey “will always be remembered as an exceptional role model, dedicated teacher, and clinical laboratory scientist in pursuit of excellence.”

In recognition of his commitment to teaching, Dr. Humphrey was three times awarded the Johns Hopkins Hospital Clinical Pathology Faculty Teaching Award.

A former president of Baltimore Physicians for Social Responsibility, he spoke in Curtis Bay in 2002 about pollution from smokestacks of the nearby incinerator. In a Baltimore Sun article, he discussed the incinerator, which burned medical devices that contained mercury. He said its discharges would be absorbed into the Chesapeake Bay and seafood. The article noted that fish tainted with mercury could cause brain damage in children when it is consumed by the young, or by pregnant women.

"Our children are too important to allow corporate profit from a medical incinerator to damage our children's health and future, " Dr. Humphrey said.

“This man was an oncologist and he understood the link from pesticides to various cancers,” said Ruth Berlin, executive director of the Maryland Pesticide Network, which Dr. Humphrey co-founded. “He was a giant, a visionary, humble, wise and willing to stand up for causes he believed in. When he spoke, he was so on the mark.”

She said Dr. Humphrey testified before the Maryland General Assembly on bills to protect children from pesticides.

He also advocated for single-payer universal heath care. In 2000, while speaking at the Cancer Survivors Park in Towson, he said: "The health care system in the U.S. is broken. It is a non-system and it does not care."

Dr. Humphrey was author of more than 80 scientific papers and 35 chapters in the fields of oncology and immunology.

On holidays, he volunteered at Viva House, where he washed dishes at the meals served to the needy.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. June 2 at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, Charles and Franklin streets, where he had been a member for more than 50 years.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, survivors include two sons, Edward Vance Humphrey of Portugal and Matthew Richard Humphrey of Charles Village; a daughter, Kristen Elizabeth Humphrey of Lutherville; and a granddaughter.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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