Franco M. Muggia, MD, Internationally Regarded Chemotherapy Pioneer, Dies at 85

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Today’s life-saving chemotherapeutics originated from the vision and indefatigable work of pioneers in the field whose unwavering vision challenged the status quo. One such pioneer was Franco M. Muggia, MD,

Franco M. Muggia, MD

Franco M. Muggia, MD

who, in a career lasting more than 50 years, had a hand in the development of some of the most important drugs in chemotherapy, including bleomycin, nitrosoureas, taxanes, and his key area of interest, platinum compounds. A fixture at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center and a leader in the study and treatment of patients with gynecologic cancers, Dr. Muggia died on September 8, 2021. He was 85 years old.

Medicine: A Family Affair

Dr. Muggia was born in Turin, Italy, in 1936 but fled with his family to Quito, Ecuador, to escape the Mussolini dictatorship when he was 3 years old. The son of a prominent pediatrician and drug developer, Dr. Muggia was a standout student in math and science at the American School of Quito. He immigrated to the United States in 1952 and completed high school at the Wooster School in Danbury, Connecticut, where his brother had gone on his way to medical school at Yale.

“My father and two grandfathers were physicians, and my older brother was entering medical school, so my father told me that we had enough doctors in the family and that I should pursue another scientific discipline. But during college, I was friends with a lot of premeds, and after awhile, I realized that medicine was my true calling,” said Dr. Muggia during an interview.

Dr. Muggia would go on to obtain his undergraduate degree in biophysics at Yale College, after which he went to New York and Cornell University Medical College. In a 2020 commentary,1 Dr. Muggia explained his decision to pursue a career in oncology: “Many factors shaped my career in oncology, including exposure to David -Karnofsky lectures while a student at Cornell and rotations at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Bellevue Hospital. My fellowship at Columbia, which was directed by Dr. Alfred Gellhorn, led me to a faculty position that was interrupted by draft regulations.”

Becoming a Citizen

After a stint on the faculty at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Dr. Muggia, who would become a U.S. citizen in 1964, volunteered for the Public Health Service, securing a position at the Medicine Branch of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which kept him from being drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. There, he worked with some of the giants in oncology, such as Dr. Paul Carbone and Dr. George Canellos, among others.

The main focus of his research at the NCI was developing new oncology agents, such as camptothecin, teniposide, nitrosoureas, bleomycin, and eventually paclitaxel and cisplatin. After 3 years at the NCI, he returned to Albert Einstein College of Medicine and its new cancer center, which was directed by Dr. Harry Eagle. He went back to the NCI in 1975 to join Dr. Vincent DeVita, who had succeeded Dr. Gordon Zubrod as Division Director, to head the Cancer Therapy Evaluation Program.

“[At the NCI], I met Dr. Paul Bunn, who was setting up his laboratory as a physician-scientist in the lung cancer program, [which] strengthened my experience in drug development, clinical trials, and health care on the national and international stage,” noted Dr. Muggia.1

A Tale of Two Coasts

In 1979, Dr. Muggia returned to full-time clinical plus administrative work as Head of Medical Oncology and Director of Clinical Programs at New York University (NYU), which was then headed by Dr. Vittorio Defendi. After 7 years at this quickly expanding program, he decided to accept a position at the University of Southern California Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

“I worked there from 1986 to 1996, first under the direction of Dr. Brian Henderson and subsequently under Dr. Peter Jones, whose leadership qualities assured the integration of clinical, basic science, and epidemiologic research,” said Dr. Muggia.1

In 1994, Dr. Muggia returned to New York to rejoin his colleagues at NYU, resuming the same position he had held 10 years previously. His clinical work, which became principally focused on gynecologic oncology, gradually became his dominant activity.

In 2014, Dr. Muggia stepped down from his administrative roles and began the process of honing his full-time work to something that resembled a half-time schedule. He noted that a wise friend from college cautioned him that cutting down from 150% (normal for physicians) to 100% does not constitute a part-time job. To that end, he reported that although his half-time schedule was “more like three-quarters,” it allowed him to make good use of his extra leisure time by keeping up with oncologic advances and sharing his “philosophical musings.”1

Colleagues Offer Tributes

As the sad news of Dr. Muggia’s death was released, his colleagues offered tributes. One of Dr. Muggia’s many mentees, Michael Gordon, MD, Chief Medical Officer at HonorHealth Research Institute, paid his respects:

Franco was the person who took me under his wing when I was an undergrad and was one of the people who guided my early career toward medicine and oncology. I fondly recall his reaching out to his mentor, John Ultmann, when I matched to the University of Chicago for a residency to continue a legacy of great mentors. He was one of the people I always connected with at ASCO; he always took an interest in my career and provided insight and thoughtful advice. He was a dedicated oncologist who was passionate about his patients and about research as a method of advancing care. He was truly one of the giants of oncology, and he will be missed. Condolences to his wife, Anna, and his family.”

His colleague at NYU Langone, Benjamin Neel, MD, posted on Twitter: “Sad to announce the sudden death of Dr. Franco Muggia, a giant in the field of medical oncology. Franco lived life to its fullest, made important contributions to our understanding of multiple chemotherapeutic agents, and delivered high-quality patient care to the very end.”

A Living Legacy

In his 2020 essay, Dr. Muggia put his own renown in the oncology community in perspective: “If my stamina continues to be satisfactory over the next decade, I intend to write down much of what I have stored in memory and reflect on the protagonists who were responsible for many of the advances that have taken place in my chosen field.”1

Unfortunately, Dr. Muggia died before being able to fulfill his 10-year dream of compiling his stored memories into a collective body. However, his contributions to the field of oncology remain alive in cancer care clinics and survivorship meetings across the world. 


1. Muggia FM: The benefits of reducing my hours to half-time (that is, three-quarter time). Clin Adv Hematol Oncol 18:394-395, 2020.