Oncologist Charlotte Jacobs to Receive Hewlett Award

Oncologist Charlotte Jacobs

To her surprise, Charlotte D. Jacobs, MD (professor [emerita], Oncology), is this year’s winner of the Hewlett Award. “I was shocked,” she said. “I never expect awards. Added to that, I am honored that I would be mentioned in the same category as Saul Rosenberg and Sarah Donaldson and Norm Shumway and the other Hewlett Award winners. I am humbled by it.”

Jacobs’s career at Stanford began as a fellow in oncology in 1977, but her trajectory has been anything but straight. There was a stint as senior associate dean for education and student affairs; another in the leadership role for envisioning, designing, and building the Clinical Cancer Center; and as a researcher in head and neck cancers. First and foremost, she has always cherished caring for patients.

Mentors Saul Rosenberg and Henry Kaplan strengthened Jacobs’s focus on the patient.  “They were both major leaders in the cancer world; yet both were highly skilled clinicians with incredible patient rapport.”

In a specialty with so many challenges, her mentors considered patients central. She explains: “When I would be in a room with Henry Kaplan, he focused totally on the patient. I remember one of his trainees told me, ‘Busy doctors save time by moving straight to the point.  Henry moved straight to the heart.’ Saul Rosenberg touched patients with such gentleness, such kindness. He tried to understand what cancer meant to them and their families and their lives.”

For a girl who grew up, as she says, “in the Appalachian region of East Tennessee where there were no women doctors, I was constantly pinching myself that I was at Stanford University. People were standing in line to try to get to study with one of those two great men. I knew I was in the presence of giants.

“They were major leaders in the cancer field. Henry Kaplan made the first linear accelerator in the Western Hemisphere. He and Saul Rosenberg are probably responsible for the cure for Hodgkin’s disease. They were among the first to stress the multidisciplinary or multimodality approach to cancer.”

Later, Jacobs and radiation oncologist Sarah Donaldson collaborated to create the Clinical Cancer Center, a building designed to foster the multidisciplinary approach to cancer. Jacobs explains: “The multimodality approach meant that surgeons, radiation oncologists, and medical oncologists worked together on a single patient, whether it’s a patient with ovarian cancer or head and neck cancer. Sarah and I were determined that there would be one central place where everyone could take care of cancer patients together.” At the time, the team approach meant having informal discussions in the hallways or one physician visiting another physician’s clinic to see a patient.

In the meantime, Jacobs’s career had taken another turn. She became the Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education and Student Affairs under David Korn, the Dean of the School of Medicine. She recalls, “He called me one day and said, ‘I need somebody to lead an effort to build a clinical cancer center.’ I said, ‘David I’m your senior associate dean, so I already have a job.’ And he said, ‘This is what I want you to do; this is so important.’ That was perfect because Sarah and I had been talking about such a center for years.”

The effort to build the center took the better part of a decade, as Jacobs and Donaldson met with faculty and staff and patients to design, as she says, “functionally and structurally what we believed would be the ideal multimodality center suited optimally for all three group..”

The Hewlett Award is especially meaningful for Jacobs: it was established by Kenneth Melmon. “He was the Chair of Medicine when I was a junior faculty member, and he was very supportive of us. He had a junior faculty club that would meet at his house and talk about issues. I was always grateful to him for his concerns about our academic advancement and salaries, especially salaries for women.”

Mid career, Jacobs began biography writing, starting with Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease, which the Wall Street Journal called “one of the best five books on doctors’ lives.” She followed this with Jonas Salk: A Life, which the editors of the New York Times Book Review listed as one of the 100 notable books of 2015.

After almost 40 years at Stanford, Jacobs continues to feel that patients come first. She says, “Throughout my career, whether as a dean or as head of the Clinical Cancer Center or as a researcher or a biographer, I always insisted on having a major patient load. Patients maintain a special place in my heart; they have brought me such joy and have enriched my life.”  She now works at the Palo Alto Veterans Medical Center caring for veterans with cancer.

Charlotte Jacobs will receive the Hewlett Award “for exceptional physicians” on March 23, and will lecture about Jonas Salk and the conquest of polio.