Most who leave a mark in life are noted for a single contribution; few are remembered for the breadth of their contributions. Such a man was John W. Yarbro, MD, PhD, who, near the end of his rich life, stepped foot on Antarctica, completing his desire to have visited all of the world’s seven continents. Dr. Yarbro died on April 13, 2020, at the age of 88.
John W. Yarbro, MD, PhD
Dr. Yarbro was born on September 15, 1931, in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating high school, Dr. Yarbro entered the University of Louisville, where he received a bachelor’s degree with high honors in chemistry and then earned his MD. After medical school, Dr. Yarbro entered the U.S. Army Medical Corps, interned at Tripler Army Hospital, and served with the 25th Division, Schofield Barracks. He trained in internal medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he also received a PhD for research in nucleic acids.
An Oncology Team
His wife of 40 years, Connie Yarbro, was an oncology nurse who was co-founder of the Oncology Nursing Society. “John and I met while I was on the board of the Association of Community Cancer Centers, of which John was serving as President. After that, we sort of become an oncology team. John was one of the leaders in launching Seminars in Oncology and served as editor for 34 years. One day, I told him oncology nurses needed a journal like that. He told me to write a proposal and send it to the publisher. I did, and that was the beginning of Seminars in Oncology Nursing,” said Ms. Yarbro in an interview with The ASCO Post.
According to Ms. Yarbro, her life with Dr. Yarbro centered around oncology, whether it was teaching, traveling to meetings, or editing journals. She noted that Dr. Yarbro was, among other leadership roles, founding Director of the Department of Medical Oncology at the American Oncologic Hospital (now the Fox Chase Cancer Center); Associate Director of the National Cancer Institute, where he was in charge of the National Cancer Centers Program; Director of the Missouri Cancer Program; Director of the Regional Cancer Center, Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Illinois; President of the Association of Community Cancer Centers; and Secretary-Treasurer of ASCO. Dr. Yarbro also chaired numerous national committees to include the Panel of Hematologic and Neoplastic Diseases of the U.S. Pharmacopeia; and was instrumental in launching the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
No Slowing Down in Retirement
Ms. Yarbro recalled that after Dr. Yarbro retired, he would read all of the oncology journals, keeping up with the latest advances and issues that had been his passion during his career. They included patient care, problem-based medical education, cancer center administration and the relationships among clinical research, quality of care and the funding of health care.
In retirement, Dr. Yarbro became an avid golfer and an amateur family genealogist. “We traveled the world together, first for professional reasons, and then just for the joy of being in far-flung places as remote as Antarctica. John even published a novel called The Third Apostle,” said Ms. Yarbro.
Dr. Yarbro had one daughter, Francys, from a previous marriage to Marina Garrett, who passed away. When Francys was six, Dr. Yarbro took her to Colorado, which inspired a life-long love of mountains. Francys would later marry a Russian alpinist named Sergei Arsentiev, and in 1998, the adventurous couple ascended Mount Everest. Francys became the first American woman to reach the summit of the iconic mountain without the aid of bottled oxygen; unfortunately, she and her husband perished on the descent.
One of Many Tributes
Past ASCO President, Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FASCT, FASCO, offered a memory of his friend and colleague: “I first met John when I joined the faculty of the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1981, after completing my fellowship at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Our Division Chief was Patrick Henry, a genteel southerner who had himself spent time at NCI earlier in his career. John was clearly the intellectual force of our Division of seven faculty, and he took me under his wing. He had a keen interest in science, specifically biochemistry and DNA synthesis. He was a wonderful mentor who took a deep interest in my work, offered critiques, challenged conclusions, and helped me become a better scientist. He was also a shrewd administrator, with a keen understanding of local and national ‘oncopolitics,’ and his insights and advice helped me navigate some of the challenges we faced at our institution during those years as well as later in my career. And, he was a fabulous editor with a clear vision for where the science of oncology was heading and how new biologic insights could be applied to improve cancer care.
Dr. Schilsky continued: “His selection of topics and authors for Seminars in Oncology over many years reflected his scientific ‘taste’ and appreciation of innovation. I learned a great deal from John early in my career, and although we only worked together for a few years before I moved to the University of Chicago, we remained friends. I last saw John and Connie at the 2019 American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting, where we were fortunate to sit together at a breakfast honoring long-time members (me, 35+ years, John 50+ years!). He hadn’t changed a bit, still inquisitive, dapper in dress, and a bit cantankerous as only he could be. I will miss him as a friend, colleague, and mentor, and our field should celebrate his contributions to the National Cancer Program, particularly his role in guiding the cancer centers program at NCI during its formative years.”
Dr. Yarbro is survived by his wife, Connie; grandson, Paul, and his wife, Pamela; great-grandchildren, Francys and Leonardo; and his dog, Tzu Hsi.