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Judah Folkman
Judah Folkman
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Judah Folkman Interview

Cancer Research

June 18, 1999
Washington, D.C.

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  Judah Folkman

When did you know what you wanted to do with your life?

Judah Folkman: I knew when I was about age seven or eight. There were three children in our house.

Dad was a rabbi, and if we were well-behaved that week, you got to go with him on his Saturday afternoon calls to the sick at the hospitals. And he would pray through the oxygen tents, and we would sit in a chair and be very quiet. And I thought I would be a rabbi. And then, about age seven or eight, I told him that I noticed that the doctors could open the tent, and do things, and that I would become a doctor. And I thought he would be upset because he had expected me to be a rabbi, but he said, "So you can be a rabbi-like-doctor." And then I knew that he thought it was fine.

When you say "the doctor could open the tent," what did that mean to you?

Judah Folkman: I noticed that while dad was praying for the patients -- but they had heart attacks and they were in oxygen tents, and they were very sick, and it seemed that the doctors actually were doing things, starting the intraveneouses and had a more active role. So I thought I would go that route. It's still the service to people.

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Was that what was going through your mind?

Judah Folkman: At that time. I remember exactly where it was. I remember making that decision in a hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

What attracted you to medicine?

Judah Folkman: It's service, and it's taking care of people, and it's ministering. That's what my father did, and mother also. Both of them said that was the highest thing you could do. They thought making money and providing jobs for people was another way of service, but this was their service, one by one, personal service to people. When you couple that with my interest in science, the two made a very good match.

Did your father and mother have a great influence on you?

Judah Folkman: An enormous influence in the way that they helped people. They were always on call. People would call at three o'clock in the morning if somebody died in the family. And Dad would go and see them. If Dad was out of town, Mom would go and see them, as almost a substitute. As the rabbi's wife, she was respected in the community.

He did a lot of marriage counseling. He had a very big congregation. At least two marriages every weekend. Then in the late '40s and '50s, he began to notice that what was happening around the country was also happening in the Jewish family. He was seeing divorces for the first time, so he began to study it. He actually got a Ph.D. in sociology at Ohio State in his spare time, and became an adjunct professor of sociology. He was always doing marriage counseling and counseling of families, children that were going on drugs or families that were breaking up.

At dinner he would tell us about people's problems, and how he was trying to help them. When he would marry somebody, he would give a little ten-minute sermon to the couple. It was always very personal, and something they remembered. And then they had Alumni Day for the maried couples. So when they were five years out and ten years out, he invited the married couples back to our home. They would come back for a weekend, it was usually in July. He'd see all these couples who were five years married, and they all had the same problems. They were poor. Then at ten years out, they were making money but they couldn't get a baby sitter, and their children had all the little problems. He used that knowledge therapeutically. So we saw all the time that they were helping people. That was the message that came across all the time. All three kids saw that.

How do you think this affected your life?

Judah Folkman: It was of very high value to follow in those footsteps, to minister to people, and not to choose a career which was totally selfish, or totally self-centered. It was very clear what that message was. They didn't say it all the time, but it was clear from what they did.

What was your childhood like?

Judah Folkman: It was a very warm home with a tremendous sense of humor, and also an enormous value placed on learning. Every day, when we would come home for dinner, every day mom or dad would say, "Well, what did you learn today?" with great interest, like "Teach us." Not, not in the sense that you didn't learn anything. So no matter what, we'd say, "Well, we had geography. "So we'd tell them. They'd be so interested, as though they didn't know. So it was that for the whole time. I always remember. That's something we, all of us, remembered: "What did you learn?"

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