Famed Cancer Biostatistician, Norman Breslow, PhD, Dies

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Norman Breslow, PhD

I think of him in Italian as Il Gigante Dolce—the giant without sharp edges. His enduring legacy will be the children. Thousands on thousands of them around the world, and their children, are alive and thriving because of Il Gigante Dolce.

—Giulio D’Angio, MD

A longitudinal case-controlled analysis of the probability of attaining normality after achieving 60: A perspective from the social sciences based on expert ethnographic insights.” So begins a long and charmingly erudite birthday card to internationally regarded biostatistician Norman Breslow, PhD, in celebration of his 60th birthday. The authors of the card were his two daughters, Sara and Lauren. Dr. Breslow kept an electronic copy of the birthday card on his homepage at the University of Washington, where he was Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biostatistics. He died of prostate cancer on December 9, 2015, at the age of 74.

Son of a Famous Father

Dr. Breslow was born on February 21, 1941, in Minneapolis and grew up in the Bay Area. His mother was Alice Philip Breslow, and his father was Lester Breslow, PhD, an epidemiologist and public health leader whose early work scientifically proved that healthier lifestyles lead to longer lives. Dr. Breslow’s father, famous in his day as “Mr. Public Health,” was born in 1915 and became an antismoking advocate after what he described as a bad experience with corncob pipes. The elder Breslow ended up popularizing what is now folksy-seeming health advice—exercise, don’t smoke, and eat right.

Dr. Breslow graduated from Berkeley High School and went to Reed College, Portland, Oregon, where he graduated with a BA in Mathematics. In 1961, he entered Stanford University, California, where he received a PhD in statistics in 1967. That same year, Dr. Breslow joined the University of Washington, where he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming the Chairman of the Biostatistical Department in 1983, a position he served in for 10 years.

Inspired by his father’s career, Dr. Breslow used the application of biostatistics to inform the analysis of epidemiologic data, and since the early 1970s, Dr. Breslow made enormous contributions to statistical theory and its applications in cancer epidemiology. In fact, much of what is now known about the causes and risk factors for cancer and other diseases was derived, in part, using his formulas. Moreover, the math Dr. Breslow perfected and formalized was the basis for what are now standard methods to filter out stray factors in “case-controlled” health studies.

True to the Discipline

Biostatistics is a discipline with a multitude of potential career paths, and many biostatisticians use the core discipline to become, for example, epidemiologists or managers of clinical trial data centers or move into population genetics. Not Dr. Breslow. Although he became deeply involved in a range of biomedical applications, he remained focused throughout his career on the development of the core statistical discipline.

According to colleague and coauthor on two books, Statistical Methods in Cancer Research, I and II, Nick E. Day, PhD, “Applications of the biostatistical methods that Dr. Breslow developed have concentrated on two of the most important areas of biomedical science where statistical thinking is fundamental: clinical trials and chronic disease epidemiology.”

The Human Factor

Dr. Breslow’s work also had a profound affect on the lives of thousands of young cancer patients by helping to found and lead the National Wilms Tumor Study Group and its data and statistical center, a Fred Hutchinson–based national registry dedicated to improving the treatment of this rare kidney cancer, which tends to strike children under the age of 5.

And although Dr. Breslow was both brilliant and bold, he also had a soft, compassionate side—especially for children. Longtime colleague Giulio D’Angio, MD, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and Former Head of the Wilms Tumor Study Group, wrote in memorial of Dr. Breslow: “I think of him in Italian as Il Gigante Dolce—the giant without sharp edges. The success of the study was in large measure because of his invaluable guidance and surveillance. His enduring legacy will be the children. Thousands on thousands of them around the world, and their children, are alive and thriving because of Il Gigante Dolce.”

An Honored Scholar Adventurer

Dr. Breslow was a tall and trim lover of the outdoors. At the age of 16, he climbed the Matterhorn in Europe. He valued being in the mountains and was a member of the Seattle Mountaineers Club, the Sierra Club, and Club Alpin Francais.  Growing up in the San Francisco area, he learned to hike and ski in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He explored the Himalayas in both Tibet and Nepal and often traveled to England, Germany, Switzerland, and France for work. He and his wife, Gayle, spent part of each year in Provence, France, where they maintained a second home.

Dr. Breslow’s many honors include the Spiegelman Gold Medal from the American Public Health Association, the Marvin Zelen Leadership award in Statistical Science from Harvard University, the Snedecor and R.A. Fisher awards from the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies, and the Medal of Honor from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. He also had the singular distinction of simultaneous membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science with his late father.

A Standard Bearer

Dr. Breslow’s commitment to the highest quality science by adhering to rigorous standards is one of his strongest legacies. As President of the International Biometric Society in 2002, he said in response to concerns about medical research quality: “To correct these unfortunate perceptions, we would do well to follow more closely our own teachings: conduct larger, fewer studies designed to test specific hypotheses; follow strict protocols for study design and analysis; better integrate statistical findings with those from the laboratory; and exercise greater caution in promoting apparently positive results.”

Dr. Breslow is survived by his wife, Gayle; daughters, Lauren Basson and Sara Jo Breslow; grandchildren, Benjamin and Ayelet Basson; brothers, Jack and Stephen; nephew, Paul; and stepmother, Devra Breslow. ■