Peter Jacobs, MD, Storied South African Hematology Pioneer, Dies 

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Peter Jacobs, MD

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
—Winston S. Churchill

The remarkable medical career of Peter Jacobs, MD, in large part, traces the oncologic history of South Africa. During the decades of political and social unrest that engulfed his native land, Dr. Jacobs treated countless thousands of patients with cancer from every economic and racial stratum, and his groundbreaking research was central to the development of hematology as a discipline in South Africa. After a long illness, Dr. Jacobs died on November 18, 2013, at the age of 79. Colleagues from around the world remembered him not only for his vast contributions to oncology, but equally for his humanism and generous friendship.

Dr. Jacobs was born in South Africa on March 21, 1934, but grew up in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. He returned to South Africa to pursue a career in medicine, attending the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

After graduating medical school, Dr. Jacobs trained in internal medicine and hematology, and studied in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In the course of his career, he also earned a PhD in iron metabolism and was elected to Fellowship in the Royal Society of South Africa, Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Pathologists, the American Society of Clinical Pathologists, and the American College of Physicians.

In 1972, Dr. Jacobs became the founding Head of the Hematology Department at the University of Cape Town, a post he held until 1994. He then continued in private practice and developed the world renowned Bone Marrow Transplant Unit at Cape Town’s Constantiaberg Hospital, which he headed until his final retirement in February 2011.

Wim de Villiers, MD, University of Cape Town, noted, “Dr. Jacobs’ energy and work ethic were legendary in the faculty during his years in office, and he will be fondly remembered by scores of students who benefited from his approach to both undergraduate and postgraduate teaching during his long academic career.”

A Life Fully Lived

From his days in high school and throughout much of his undergraduate study, Dr. Jacobs worked as a lab assistant and technician, which nurtured his passion for clinical research. Dr. Jacobs also had experiences that sounded as if they were ripped from the pages of an adventure novel.

In March 2010, his associate and friend, James O. Armitage, MD, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, wrote a letter supporting the nomination of Dr. Jacobs for Mastership in the American College of Physicians, in which he opened a candid window into Dr. Jacobs’ youth. He noted, “There is probably no other candidate this year for Mastership in the American College of Physicians who earned the money to attend medical school by working as a game control officer, whose responsibility it was to track down and destroy dangerous animals that were killing humans or ruining crops.”

In an interview, Dr. Armitage elaborated on Dr. Jacobs’ adventurous past. “Peter had great stories about being a game control officer. One time he tracked a leopard that had been marauding the nearby villages. The big cat had gone into a cave, so Peter followed with a flashlight and a shotgun, because it would be a close-quarters shot. He said that he was concerned that the leopard might get the jump on him in the dark, but Peter got him first.”

Dr. Armitage also noted that Dr. Jacobs was an avid reader of the rough-and-tumble American Western writer Louis L’Amour. “He never really said why he liked L’Amour so much, but I always figured there might be some connection between the Wild West that L’Amour wrote about and the Africa that Peter grew up in,” said Dr. Armitage.

Dr. Armitage added that Dr. Jacobs’ original contributions included leading the development of a method for reducing graft-vs-host disease with allogeneic transplantation using alemtuzumab (Campath) mixed with the bone marrow before reinfusion into the patient. “Peter’s work has led to 252 original scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals and numerous awards. However, I think he would be most proud that his work made it possible for many South Africans of all races and economic backgrounds to be cured of what would have otherwise been fatal diseases,” said Dr. Armitage.

International Oncology Ambassador

Fellow South African and mentee, Matthew Seftel, MD, MBChB, MPH, MRCP, FRCPC, University of Manitoba, said, “Dr. Jacobs’ major achievement was the introduction of experimental and clinical blood and bone marrow transplantation. Throughout his career, he trained and mentored countless physicians and basic scientists, and in the midst of political and economic instability in South Africa, many of these trainees progressed to academic careers worldwide,” he added.

“His longstanding interest in lymphoma was influenced in recent years by the region’s HIV epidemic,” Dr. Seftel continued. “Despite these challenges, he continued to practice medicine with a tireless, orderly, and scholarly approach. Lymphoma experts of international repute regularly attended his biennial South African Lymphoma Study Group meetings. In 2009, the South African Academy of Arts and Science awarded him the centenary medal in recognition of his outstanding national and international academic profile.”

From Canada, long-term colleague Joseph M. Connors, MD, BC Cancer Agency Centre for Lymphoid Cancer, remembered Dr. Jacobs with the following reflections: “Dr. Peter Jacobs was an inspiration to all of us who endeavor to help lymphoma patients even in the most challenging circumstances. With a career spanning the entire history of hematology and medical oncology in South Africa from the 1960s until now, he worked tirelessly to bring the best of modern health care to those with hematologic malignancies. My every encounter with Peter was an inspiration. All of us should aspire to emulate his compassion for patients and his commitment to education and learning. We have lost an irreplaceable colleague.”

From Germany, colleague Volker Dielh, MD, PhD, Founder and Honorary Chairman of the German Hodgkin Study Group said, “Peter Jacobs was one of the most passionate, engaged, and knowledge-hungry doctors I have known. There were no meetings for malignant lymphomas in which Peter was not sitting in the first row from early in the morning until the last talk in the evening, listening intensively and taking notes for his practice, in order to give the best treatment possible for the many lymphoma and leukemia patients for whom he lived and fought. Nearly every month, I got an e-mail from Peter, asking for help with a very special and difficult patient with a completely unusual leukemia or an absurd lymphoma, or he asked for advice on the third- or fourth-line therapy of a patient who had become a dear friend.”

Dr. Jacobs lived a full and vibrant life, caring for patients with cancer and conducting research under conditions that, at times, would probably be hard for young oncology fellows to fully comprehend. It is beyond the scope of this essay to fully capture the life of Peter Jacobs, the doctor and the man. However, Dr. Armitage offered a simple tribute that we all might strive for: “Peter was simply a man you wanted as your friend.” And if you were diagnosed with cancer, he was a man you wanted as your doctor. ■