Dr. Paul Talalay, Johns Hopkins molecular pharmacologist who made broccoli famous as a cancer fighter, dies

Dr. Paul Talalay, a noted molecular pharmacologist who headed a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine research team that isolated a chemical found in broccoli that helped boost its cancer-fighting abilities, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at his Roland Park Place home.

He was 95.

“He had a credible standing as a bona fide conventional scientist, and was a man of many skills,” said Dr. Theresa A. Shapiro, a professor in the division of clinical pharmacology and pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who first met Dr. Talalay when she was interviewed by him at Hopkins in 1972.

“Paul was my second intellectual father. He was a mentor to me and an extraordinarily intelligent man who was witty, charismatic and elegant. He had a deep wisdom about him which combined to make him a unique individual and a great citizen of the institution,” said the Towson resident.

Dr. Phil Cole, former pharmacology department chair at Hopkins who is now professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said: “I feel he’s one of the most important scholars Hopkins has had in the last 50 years.

“His vision transformed how we view biomedical research, which led to important insights in protection from disease and maintaining health,” said Dr. Cole, a Newton, Mass., resident.

Dr. Talalay, who was born in Berlin, Germany, to Soviet Jewish parents, was the son of Joseph Talalay, an engineer and inventor, and his wife, Sophie Brosterman Talalay, a homemaker.

Shortly after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Dr. Talalay and his family fled Germany in 1933 using purchased Haitian passports, family members said, moved to Belgium, France and then England, and settled near London.

He was a graduate of The Bedford School in Bedford, England, where while a student he learned to speak English.

In 1940, he immigrated to New York with his family and later settled with them in New Haven, Conn. He was a 1944 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned a degree in molecular biophysics.

He began medical school at the University of Chicago, where he conducted research in the laboratory of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Charles B. Huggins, a prostate cancer researcher, which sparked his lifelong interest in cancer.

“He taught me all that I know about science and about how to do science,” Dr. Talalay told The Sun in a 1992 interview.

Dr. Talalay left Chicago after two years and entered Yale University Medical School, from which he graduated in 1948, and for the next two years, was a house officer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

He returned to the University of Chicago in 1950, “where his early work on the mechanism of cancer earned him a lifetime research grant from the American Cancer Society, at the time, the largest research grant the society had ever awarded to an individual,” his son, Antony “Tony” Talalay, of Lutherville, wrote in a biographical profile of his father.

Three years later, he entered Cambridge University for postgraduate work, where while working in the laboratory, he met his future wife, the former Dr. Pamela Samuels, a biochemist, “and they bonded over their interest in protective enzymes,” his son wrote. They married in 1953.

Dr. Talalay came to Baltimore from the University of Chicago in 1963, when he was appointed professor of pharmacology and chairman of the department of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which later became the laboratory for molecular pharmacology at Hopkins.

“His tenure as chair of the department was legendary, according to colleagues at Hopkins and elsewhere,” according to a 2009 profile of Dr. Talalay in the Johns Hopkins Magazine. “He started the Ph.D. program in pharmacology, breaking the tradition nurtured by his two predecessors who believed that a medical degree was all one needed to perform research in the field.”

“As a leader, he made two crucial hires that changed Hopkins when he brought Dr. Solomon Snyder and Dr. Donald Coffey to Hopkins,” Dr. Cole said.

Dr. Solomon H. Snyder was a Hopkins professor of psychiatry, neurosciences and pharmacology who discovered opiate receptors in the brain, and Dr. Donald S. Coffey, was director of research at Hopkins’ Brady Urological Institute and a professor of urology.

“He also initiated the MD-PhD, medical scientist training program at Hopkins in 1975 that trained real leaders in biomedical research that have gone all over the world,” Dr. Cole said.

In 1973, Dr. Talalay stepped down as department chair “when he decided to take a leap of faith away from treatment and toward preventing cancer,” reported the Hopkins Magazine, to head the laboratory for molecular pharmacology.

“He worked tirelessly for more than 40 years exploring and devising strategies aimed at preventing cancer,” his son wrote. “After identifying synthetic molecules that promoted the ability of cells to resist damage, his lab turned to natural compounds in cruciferous vegetables with this activity, including broccoli. This led to the launch of the Center for Chemoprotection Research at Hopkins.

The broccoli research began the early 1980s, when Dr. Talalay gave a $20 bill to one of his students and asked him to go to the Northeast Market.

It was in 1992 that Dr. Talalay and the team of his researchers that he headed isolated a chemical, sulforphane, that is found in broccoli and similar Brassica family of vegetables, which in addition to broccoli include cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, turnips, collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage and kohlrabi, that can fight cancer.

“He was ahead of the curve on that,” Dr. Shapiro said. “He legitimized that and the fact that it had a nutritional impact on our health.”

“The lab’s findings were splashed on the front page of The New York Times and hailed as one of the top 100 scientific discoveries of the 20th century of Popular Mechanics,” observed the Hopkins Magazine profile. “All of which fortified a still-growing movement built, by science and so-called foodies, on the idea that people can improve their health by eating the right foods.”

It was said that after Dr. Talalay’s research became public, broccoli sales in the United States doubled, while President George H.W. Bush pronounced his disdain for the vegetable.

“My greatest fear is that on my tombstone, they’ll say, ‘He made broccoli famous,’ ” he told Hopkins Magazine.

In an interview with the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences, Dr. Talalay explained that broccoli sprouts were a regular part of his diet.

“I’ve gone to a better diet, a more vegetable-rich diet, since starting this research,” he said. “We eat broccoli sprouts two to three times a week. I enjoy them on a croissant with a little cream cheese.”

Dr. Talalay, his son and Dr. Jed Fahey, a nutritional biochemist and associate professor of medicine and of pharmacology and molecular sciences at the Hopkins Medical School, established Brassica Sprout Group LLC, which produces and sells 4-ounce packages of broccoli sprouts nationwide.

There was another side to Dr. Talalay, the bit player, who had brief walk-on roles in several John Waters films.

“He was a porn patron in ‘Polyester,’ a cabdriver in ‘Hairspray,’ and a concerned citizen in ‘Cry-Baby,’ ” said Mr. Waters, of Guilford. “He was very eccentric and a bit of the mad doctor, and I mean that in a nice way. He was always wonderful and lovely to us.”

Said Dr. Cole: “He was quick-witted and not someone to tangle with in a personal debate. He was an eloquent speaker who could move people when he told stories of his life.”

Dr. Talalay was a member of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

The former longtime resident of Boxhill Lane in The Orchards neighborhood of North Baltimore never retired. He enjoyed spending summers at a second home in Surry, Maine, reading and woodworking.

Private services were held in New Haven on Tuesday, and plans for a memorial service to be held in Baltimore are incomplete.

In addition to his wife of 66 years and son, Dr. Talalay is survived by three daughters, Susan Mora of McLean, Va., Rachel Talalay of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sarah Talalay of Kuala Lumpur; and four grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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