AML Pioneer and ‘Gentle Soul,’ Elihu H. Estey, MD, Dies at 75

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“A lot of times, younger bright physicians are afraid to say what they really think, out of fear of challenging the dogma. One of the things I do when mentoring is to ask why we are doing a particular therapy or intervention. I tell my mentees not to let the data interfere with your knowledge,” said Elihu H. Estey, MD, during an interview at the 2018 Annual Meeting & Exposition of the American Society of Hematology (ASH). Dr. Estey, an expert in acute myeloid leukemia (AML), was known throughout the oncology community as a physician who always challenged the dogma and never let the data interfere with his knowledge. Dr. Estey died on October 8, 2021, at age 75. At the time of his passing, he was Professor of Hematology and Medicine and Director of the AML Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Seattle.

Elihu H. Estey, MD

Elihu H. Estey, MD

Upon hearing of Dr. Estey’s death, his colleague at Fred Hutch, past ASCO President Nancy E. Davidson, MD, FASCO, notified his friends and associates at the institution: “It is with great sadness that I am sharing that Elihu (Eli) Estey died suddenly this past Friday. Eli, Professor of Hematology/Medicine, led our Leukemia program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the University of Washington, and Fred Hutch and was responsible for its growth and prominence. He was a rigorous clinical scientist, a wonderful citizen of academic medicine, and a tremendous friend. He will be greatly missed, and we are proud to have had him as a member of the hematology faculty.”

From Math to Oncology

Dr. Estey received his degree in mathematics at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, before attending medical school at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He completed residency training in neurology at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, which eventually led him to an interest in brain tumors. Following his new interest in oncology, Dr. Estey went on to MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, where his career bloomed under the guidance of giants in the field.

During a 2017 interview with The ASCO Post, Dr. Estey noted: “I spent 28 incredible years at MD Anderson, where I was influenced by great mentors such as Drs. Emil J Freireich and Michael Keating.” In 2008, he and his family moved to Seattle, where he became a Professor at the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and where he built one of the largest clinical AML programs in the United States.

In a tribute to Dr. Estey, friends and colleagues Roland B. Walter, MD, PhD, Andreas Hochhaus, MD, and Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, wrote:

“Improving the lives of people with [leukemia] was his lifelong passion. His tools were astute observation, hypothesis testing, and especially rigorous data analyses. An out-of-the box thinker, he would routinely question or challenge the validity of widely accepted medical practices…. Challenging trainees and colleagues to think critically was close to Eli’s heart.

“Eli was kind and unobtrusive in his guidance and generous with crediting trainees and junior faculty. He took great pleasure in watching his mentees’ projects evolve under his benign supervision. (He could not tolerate fools or phonies.) Many remember early morning walks during meetings to catch up socially and discuss anything from politics to professional sports, of which he was a huge fan and, unsurprisingly, knew all kinds of statistics about. He applied his mathematical background to organizing a betting lottery during the college basketball championship; a beneficent Meyer Lansky. Each week he awaited with equal enthusiasm TheNew England Journal of Medicine and Sports Illustrated.

“To those who knew him, he was bigger than life, not only in science but in his humanity and sense of humor. He would love to sit down and talk with people. A rigorous clinical scientist, an impactful thought leader, a wonderful academician, a professional and college sports connoisseur, a fierce advocate for women’s rights and equality and a tremendous friend, he will be sorely missed.”

A Father and Son Share Thoughts

Fred Appelbaum, MD, who was a long-time friend and colleague of Dr. Estey at Fred Hutch, offered a tribute: “Eli was a wonderful friend and colleague. We met every other week, without fail, and would discuss new ideas, ongoing projects, and at least one sports trivia fact. He had a knack for asking seemingly simple, clinically relevant questions and, in answering them, coming up with surprising insights that changed the practice of medicine. He was generous and made a special effort to include medical students and trainees in his work. Not having him on my regular schedule leaves a hole I won’t ever be able to fill.”

Dr. Appelbaum’s son, Jacob S. Appelbaum, MD, an AML specialist at Seattle Care Alliance, worked with Dr. Estey as a trainee and shared his remembrances of his mentor: “He was kind, unendingly generous with his time and ideas, and a rigorous thinker. He was welcoming as a senior physician; he sat next to me at ASH meetings, for the brief periods he was seated, prior to jumping up and asking a question. We met every Tuesday to discuss new patients, and after most meetings, he would forward an article he had written a gazillion years ago looking to better understand a decision faced by a patient we discussed. His articles were prescient and of immediate relevancy. And his thinking was always clear; if we are dissatisfied with the current standard of care, we should continue our research striving to improve outcomes and participate in clinical trials.”

Unyielding Common Sense

Although Dr. Estey’s vast array of friends and colleagues noted that many adjectives described him—iconoclastic, skeptical, brilliant, original—more than anything, he stood for basic and unyielding common sense. As best described in his own words: “Our major blockade to a cure is lack of knowledge. In generations to come, researchers who have that knowledge will look back at us in the same way that we look at doctors who put leaches on George Washington, although they were perhaps the best doctors of their day.”

Dr. Estey is survived by his wife, Dr. Cynthia David, his children Andrew and Emily, and his beloved dog Hutch.