Breast Cancer Advocate and Chief of Surgical Oncology at Howard University, Lori Wilson, MD, FACS, Dies

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Lori Wilson, MD, FACS, was the first woman to hold the surgical oncology division chief position at Howard University Hospital and the first woman to be promoted to full professor in surgery at Howard University College of Medicine. Known as a fierce advocate for patients with cancer in underserved settings, and for her tireless work in developing prevention and screening programs for at-risk populations, Dr. Wilson was also a breast cancer survivor. Dr. Wilson died on October 14, 2022. 

The following tribute includes excerpts from an interview earlier this year that Dr. Wilson granted to The ASCO Post.

Lori Wilson, MD, FACS

Lori Wilson, MD, FACS

Determined to Become a Doctor

Dr. Wilson was born on June 22, 1966, in Landstuhl, Germany, where her father was stationed for a while during his career in the U.S. Air Force. The military family would move several times before settling in Portsmouth, Virginia, when Dr. Wilson was 5 years old. Dr. Wilson lived in a Black middle-class environment, which she noted was a “fairly insular community in its demographics, but a good place to grow up in, make friends, have a sense of place and time, and also feel grounded and ready for the challenges ahead.”

Dr. Wilson’s career path was never in doubt, as friends and family knew from early on that she aspired to become a doctor, a surgeon in fact. She would comment that even though the Army surgeons didn’t look like her, she was drawn to their quick thinking ability to help the injured and sick with interventions that had immediate impact on their health. Her love of math and science struck gold when she won a Bausch & Lomb science award for high schoolers with exceptional grades and acumen in science. The award gave her the opportunity to work in the lab of endocrinologist Gerald Pepe, MD, who taught her how to employ the scientific method. According to Dr. Wilson, Dr. Pepe was also the first person to tell her that she could meld her love of science with her desire to help those in need by becoming an academic clinician.

Medical School and Oncology Training

Dr. Wilson attended Georgetown University as an undergraduate. During her senior year, she was offered the opportunity to work at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) with Lance Liotta, MD, the “father of proteomics.” She recalled that time at the NCI as a formative period that accelerated her desire to pursue clinical research. 

After achieving her BS at Georgetown, Dr. Wilson remained there to pursue her medical degree at Georgetown University School of Medicine. While in medical school, she had another career-forging experience, working with Soon-Myoung Park, MD, a noted pathologist whose research sought to determine which women would benefit from adjuvant chemotherapies. Dr. Wilson commented: “I worked in his lab a few times a week for 2 incredible years and learned that through research, you can have broad translational impact on patient populations, which helped shape the way I thought about science and medicine.”

Toward the end of medical school, Dr. Wilson chanced upon a lecture by the renowned cancer surgeon LaSalle Leffall, MD, which she described as a pivotal experience in her career. “Dr. Leffall simply blew me away,” she said. “He was everything I wanted to be—researcher, clinician, surgeon, educator, and advocate for the underserved. While listening to his lecture, I decided that I wanted to follow in his huge surgical footsteps, and the only place to do that was at Howard University, where Dr. Leffall was Head of the Surgery Department.” Dr. Wilson matched at Howard and did her surgical residency along with 2 years of clinical research at the University of Cincinnati. 

After her residency at Howard, Dr. Wilson went West and did a surgical fellowship at John Wayne Cancer Institute, where her surgical career experienced tremendous growth, including a global surgical outreach program in Swaziland, Africa (now known as Eswatini), which expanded her appreciation of underserved populations. She commented: “My time there taught me to view other cultures and their mores and beliefs with respect, which stayed with me throughout my career.”

Returning to Howard to Make a Difference

After her fellowship, Dr. Wilson began her first faculty position at the University of Connecticut, but after a short while, she realized that to fulfil her career desires of helping her community, she needed to return to Howard University. She received an offer, and took it, returning to the storied institution in 2011; in a few years, she would become the first woman to hold the surgical oncology division chief position and the first woman to be promoted to full professor in surgery at the Howard University School of Medicine. Along with her leadership role at Howard, Dr. Wilson also served on the Board of Directors for the American Cancer Society. She also led twice-a-year medical missions to Africa, for which she received the Nelson Mandela Award from the United Nations. 

Loved and Respected by All 

Dr. Wilson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. In December 2021, Dr. Wilson shared with attendees at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium (SABCS) that in January 2019, shortly after celebrating her 5-year remission from disease, she had learned the breast cancer had returned and had metastasized. Dr. Wilson delivered a keynote lecture at the 2021 SABCS on advancing health-care equity built on trust.

Her long-time colleague and friend at Howard University, Wayne A I. Frederick, MD, MBA, offered his thoughts about Dr. Wilson: “Dr. Wilson was one of the most talented cancer surgeons I have ever encountered. She was a tremendous doctor and resource for women at Howard and in the Washington, DC community. However, we are well positioned to withstand this loss because of the legacy of service Dr. Wilson has left behind. Due to her efforts, Howard is able to provide tremendous resources to patients in our community to prevent and treat breast cancer.”

Dr. Wilson is survived by her husband, Chris Dauphin and her 10-year-old son, Christian Dauphin.