Pioneer in Fight Against Tobacco, Emanuel Farber, MD, PhD, Dies at 85

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Emanuel Farber, MD, PhD

[H]e represents a guiding example of a life devoted to serving his fellow man and scientific colleagues with unmatched qualities of integrity, humbleness, deep reasoning, and an exquisite no-nonsense … approach to science.

—Felix A. de la Iglesia, MD

On December 11, 1969, a soft-spoken pathologist wearing outsized spectacles answered a long and complex series of questions by the legal team representing Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, the maker of Chesterfield cigarettes. The tobacco lawyers contended that one Leslie Thayer—a lifelong smoker of Chesterfields—had died of lung cancer due to “misuse” of their product. The expert witness, Emanuel Farber, MD, PhD, dismantled that contention, demonstrating that years of smoking Chesterfield cigarettes had caused Leslie Thayer’s death of lung cancer. Dr. Farber’s groundbreaking research in carcinogenesis was instrumental in the paradigm shift in American attitudes toward smoking. Dr. Farber died on August 3, 2014, at the age of 95.

Early Life

Dr. Emmanuel Farber was born in Toronto in 1918. His lifelong interest in science blossomed during his early schooling, leading him to the Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, in 1936, where he received his MD degree in 1942. Having completed his residency training in pathology at the Hamilton General Hospital in Ontario, Canada, Dr. Farber served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. After his military service, Dr. Farber entered the University of California Graduate School, Berkeley, obtaining his doctorate in biochemistry in 1949.

Dr. Farber developed an early interest in liver disease that can be traced to a 1950 fellowship awarded by the American Cancer Society. There he worked with Hans Popper, MD, who was the driving force behind the founding of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. During this exciting period of study, Dr. Farber wrote several papers dealing with early theories on the etiology of liver diseases.

Pathologist, Biochemist, and Educator

Although Dr. Farber was a renowned pathologist and biochemist, he was also an educator. When he was elected as an honorary member of the Society of Toxicologic Pathologists, his colleague Felix A. de la Iglesia, MD [now Chief Enterprise Officer of the Michigan Technology & Research Institute at Wayne State University School of Medicine, Ann Arbor, Michigan] wrote, “Those who are fortunate enough to work near or under Dr. Farber’s guidance enjoy the feeling of continuing mental probing, the intense research intellectual exercise, and the amazing flow of energy that emanates from his personality.”

He began his academic teaching career as an instructor in pathology at Tulane University in New Orleans, serving as Associate Professor from 1950 to 1959. He later became the American Cancer Society Research Professor of Pathology and Biochemistry from 1959 to 1961.

After leaving the American Cancer Society, Dr. Farber became Professor and Chair of the Pathology Department and Professor in the Biochemistry Department at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine, serving from 1961 to 1970. From 1970 through 1975, Dr. Farber was at the Fels Research Institute in Philadelphia, where he was appointed as Director.

In 1975, Dr. Farber returned to his native city of Toronto, to serve as Chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Toronto. Later, Dr. de la Iglesia, would write, “Dr. Farber’s academic career and research achievements are the proof that pathologists must seek with interdisciplinary knowledge and profound biochemical insight into the biological processes they study through the microscope. At an early age, Dr. Farber devoted himself to this discipline; thus, his leading role in developing experimental and biochemical pathology.”

Early in Dr. Farber’s career, he was the recipient of the Parke-Davis Award in Experimental Pathology, a prize given to an investigator under age 40 who has shown a promising career in pathology. The Parke-Davis Award would be the first of many bestowed on Dr. Farber. In 1984, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, an award that recognizes outstanding Canadians.

Legacy Work

Dr. Farber’s work in illuminating the public health disaster associated with smoking was his legacy work. His groundbreaking studies in experimental pathology confirmed that chemical carcinogens are capable of binding to nucleic acids, in turn generating specific DNA adducts.

These early findings led to the observation that chemical carcinogenesis is a sequential process. Dr. Farber later substantiated this theory by showing that cancer could be induced through a series of step-by-step chemical treatments in the liver.

Dr. Farber served on the Surgeon General’s first Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health from 1961 to 1964. The committee was responsible for issuing the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s Report, which has now done more to prevent tobacco-related disease than any other public health document, and is credited with saving tens of millions of lives.

Moreover, Dr. Farber promoted the concept that to understand carcinogenesis, one must also understand the cellular, genetic, metabolic, and molecular changes that are occurring during the process. This conviction, along with Dr. Farber’s energy and enthusiasm in exploring the nature of cancer, has inspired the guidance for cancer researchers worldwide.

In addition to his academic and research contributions, Dr. Farber was a very active member of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), serving as Vice President from 1971 to 1972 and President from 1972 to 1973. He was a member of the AACR Board of Directors and served as Associate Editor of Cancer Research; he was elected as an inaugural Fellow of the AACR Academy in 2013.

Unmatched Tenacity

As news of Dr. Farber’s death became public, colleagues uniformly remembered him as researcher of unmatched tenacity and devotion to scientific exploration. A remark by Dr. de la Iglesia in 1985 captures the essence of the scientific communities that Dr. Farber touched: “For us he represents a guiding example of a life devoted to serving his fellow man and scientific colleagues with unmatched qualities of integrity, humbleness, deep reasoning, and an exquisite no-nonsense … approach to science.” ■