Peter Jacobs, MD, PhD: 1934–2013

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Peter Jacobs, MD, PhD

With a career spanning the entire history of hematology and medical oncology in South Africa from the 1960s until now, [Dr. Jacobs] worked tirelessly to bring the best of modern health care to those with hematologic malignancies….All of us should aspire to emulate his compassion for patients and his commitment to education and learning.

— Joseph M. Connors, MD

Peter Jacobs, MD, PhD, regarded as the father of hematology in his native country of South Africa, began each day at 3 AM in the gym. During his workout, Dr. Jacobs would routinely call the nursing staff for updates on patients in his ward. Before sunup, Dr. Jacobs was on his way to the hospital. “Every morning before leaving for work, Peter would read from the Bible, which he’d already read cover-to-cover. Then he would pray to the ‘Big Hematologist’ upstairs for guidance, patience, and understanding for the day that lay ahead,” said Dr. Jacobs’ wife, Di Jacobs.

Dr. Jacobs was born March 21, 1934, in Pretoria, South Africa, the year the Status of the Union Act was passed, declaring South Africa “a sovereign, independent state” and removing the last vestiges of British rule. Dr. Jacobs then moved with his family to Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—where he completed his high school education at the Prince Edward School in Salisbury.

An Early Passion for Research

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. In 1949, he began his working career as a medical laboratory technologist at the Pasteur Institute and Government Health Laboratory in Salisbury. Two years later, he was appointed Chief Medical Laboratory Technologist at GV Blaine Laboratories in the same city. In 1954, he returned to South Africa to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, graduating in 1959.

Dr. Jacobs also had a deep love of nature and worked part-time as a game warden to help pay for his education. In March 2010, his associate and friend, James O. Armitage, MD, of the 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.”

A Man of Decision

After his internship at Johannesburg General Hospital in 1960, Dr. Jacobs met the woman who would almost overnight become his wife. “Peter and I met on November 20, 1960, through a nursing friend of mine. We became engaged the same week we met each other and were married 2 months later on January 21, 1961,” said Mrs. Jacobs.

It soon became clear that an academic career was in Dr. Jacobs’ future. He was appointed as a Senior Research Bursar of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Iron and Red Cell Metabolism Unit while working toward his MD at the University of the Witwatersrand, which he received in 1966.

In 1967, he left for the United States to become a Senior Research Fellow in Hematology in the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he worked until 1969. He then returned to South Africa, where his research on iron supply and hemoglobin synthesis earned him a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1974.

The Father of South African Hematology

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.

Some of Dr. Jacobs’ most groundbreaking achievements occurred during his tenure as Foundation Professor of Hematology at the University of Cape Town, Chief Specialist and Consultant Hematologist at Groote Schuur Hospital, and Director of the Cape Town Leukemia Centre, and rotating Chairperson of the Division of Pathology.

Fellow South African and mentee, Matthew Seftel, MD, MBChB, MPH, MRCP, FRCPC, of the 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.”

“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.”

A Rich, Work-Centered Life

Dr. Jacobs’ wife, Di, stressed that their whole life revolved around her husband’s academic career, his research, patients, their families, the nurses, students, and colleagues. “He loved to play golf on Saturday afternoons, but with his beeper continually going off during play, it often resulted with him leaving in the middle of a game if a patient needed him. He also loved to play tennis on Sunday mornings, but would only allow himself an hour before heading back to the hospital to see every patient in the unit. This he did mornings and evenings, 7 days a week,” she said.

She continued, “We never managed to go away on vacations, so the only time he broke this routine would be to attend conferences or meetings locally or overseas, flying back on the next available flight.”

Mrs. Jacobs said that her husband would return home from the hospital between 7:00 PM and 8:30 PM every night. After a quick supper, together they would go through any mail, papers, or chapters Dr. Jacobs was writing. “I would type most of his drafts and work late at night and in the mornings when our sons were at school. The rest of my time was spent with my boys’ schooling, scouts, life-saving, and sport activities. They were both provincial surfers and, as a team judge, I would accompany them to national and provincial surfing events around South Africa,” she said.

A Very Busy Retirement

In 2011, Dr. Jacobs retired from clinical patient care to become a consultant and Director of the Hematology Research Group at PathCare. He continued giving weekly tutorials to final-year medical students and remained involved in the medical student exchange program between Cape Town and Nebraska.

In 2012, he received a Special Achievement Award from the Sunflower Fund, an organization that recruits donors for bone marrow transplantation, and in 2013, the Fellowship in Arts and Science of Medicine Award from the South African Medical Association.

At the end of March 2013, Dr. Jacobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away 8 months later on November 18, 2013.

Internationally Renowned Oncologist

Immediately following Dr. Jacobs’ death, tributes came pouring in from around the world, a testament to his global reach in the oncology community. From Canada, longtime colleague Joseph M. Connors, MD, of 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.”

Mrs. Jacobs said that her husband had tremendous respect for all his nursing staff; he would tutor, encourage, and help them in every way possible. In fact, she said, everyone in Dr. Jacobs’ department, from the cleaners to the most senior members, were known and treated as part of the “Heme Team.” “Peter’s whole life was centered on his work, his patients, the students, his nursing staff, and his colleagues,” she said. ■