Albert H. Owens Jr., pioneering oncologist and former Hopkins Hospital president, dies

Albert Owens MD - Original Credit:

Dr. Albert H. Owens Jr., a pioneering oncologist who helped establish new ways to fight cancer and was a former president of Johns Hopkins Hospital, died of congestive heart failure Jan. 13 at Hopkins. The Churchville resident was 90.

Born on Staten Island, N.Y., he was the son of a dentist, Dr. Albert H. Owens Sr., and Grace Masters, a Mount Sinai Hospital head surgical nurse. He was a graduate of a high school in Port Richmond, N.Y.


His studies at Harvard University were interrupted by his Navy service in Korea, and he earned bachelor's and medical degrees from the Johns Hopkins University.

He became a Hopkins researcher and worked in liver metabolism. Hopkins colleagues said that in 1957, Dr. A. McGehee Harvey, who headed the Hopkins medical department, created a cancer research and treatment division.


Dr. Harvey asked Dr. Owens to head the new oncology division.

"At first, they gave him a card table, a secretary and a PH meter," said Dr. Donald S. Coffey, a colleague for many years who is a professor emeritus of urology, oncology and pathology. "Up to this time, there was no treatment for cancer other than surgery and radiation. Al went to work immediately and started drawing blood from his patients."

The hospital did not have room for the new treatment service, and Dr. Owens saw his patients and conducted research at the old Baltimore City Hospitals, now Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"He found a place in the backwater of the old buildings there and soon assembled a first-class team," said Dr. Coffey. "His great genius was his ability to bring great scientists and clinicians together. He would also say, 'We have to do everything right for this patient.'"

He recalled Dr. Owens as a quiet listener who would talk about patients as though they were his own children.

"Al Owens was one of the great figures in cancer. ... He should receive a great deal of the credit for what cancer care and research have become today," said Dr. William G. Nelson, Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center director. "He was a wonderfully thoughtful person and was not prone to hyperbole. He liked people who worked on cancer seriously. And like great leaders, he distributed the credit."

A Hopkins statement described Dr. Owens as "a slightly bashful, bow tie-wearing researcher and clinician." In 1973, he became the first director of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center. In 1977, he moved his work back to Hopkins' East Baltimore campus and a new oncology center. Much expanded, the facility is now named the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"Al was an exceptional leader who believed that the best way to foster science that would improve patient outcomes was to put basic scientists and clinicians into the same building so they would naturally bond as team members sharing projects, discoveries, frustrations and coffee on a daily basis," Hopkins professor Dr. Stuart A. Grossman said in a statement. "He radiated interest and enthusiasm when it came to cancer research and frequently dropped unannounced into the offices of young faculty members, asking them to describe the most exciting research project they were working on that day."


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Dr. Owens was named Johns Hopkins Hospital president in 1987 and held the post for 18 months. He then resumed his work fighting cancer, but not before he instituted a smoke-free policy throughout the hospital. An auditorium at the medical campus is named in his honor.

"Dr. Owens was not only a superb oncologist and mentor, but a first-rate gentleman," Dr. David Ettinger, Hopkins professor of oncology, said in a statement.

Dr. Owens was a past president of the Maryland division of the American Cancer Society, the Association of American Cancer Institutes and the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Dr. Owens resided at Medical Hall, a historic Churchville home, where he cultivated bee colonies.

Plans for a memorial service at Johns Hopkins Hospital are pending.

Survivors include his wife of 20 years, Sally W. MacConnell, a Johns Hopkins administrator; two sons, Albert Henry Owens III of Washington, N.J., and David Tilden Owens of Minneapolis; two daughters, Elizabeth Ann Owens of Baltimore and Sarah Louise Owens of England; and five grandchildren.