Dr. Donald Coffey: ballsy as a bonobo

During my graduate studies I had the great fortune to meet Dr. Donald Coffey. He was invited to speak to us up coming biologists and inspire us. As sat there before the meeting started I was talking to someone from my lab about something laby, the person in front of me turns around and joins the conversation as if it were the most interesting thing he had ever heard. Come to find out he was our keynote speaker, director of research in the department of Urology at Johns Hopkins and here he was almost giddy while he spoke with a couple of kids about science.

I was really impressed with his talk. To tell you the truth I can’t remember any of the scientific data he presented. I do remember though that he started by asking a room full of biologists if they had ever wondered why it was cold at high altitudes? I had never thought about it and apparently neither had anybody else, at least they weren’t willing to come forward. He pointed out that at high altitudes you are

“closer to the sun, with less atmosphere blocking it’s rays, yet it is colder.”

He gave an example of a spray can and how the compressed air, as it is released, expands and gets colder. Just like that spray can compressed air, at lower altitudes, rises and expands causing the molecules to slow and become “cold”. For all you weather scientists, I know there are other factors at work, but the point was that us biologists weren’t asking enough questions and certainly didn’t know all the answers. He went on to ask why bonobos, one of our closest genetic kin, don’t get prostate cancer even though they have huge “prostates”? He even showed pictures. It was a very entertaining talk, very unusual for this venue.

Come to find out later, that he didn’t follow the usual path to becoming a cancer researcher. When he decided to go back to graduate school later in life he had been rejected by 23 schools. While still working and raising a family he did however take classes at McCoy College, the Hopkins night school. There he heard of a night position available in one of the labs at Hopkins and he took it. While he was there one of the professors went away for a year on a Fulbright fellowship and Donald applied to run the lab in his absence. He was offered the position and the pay cut that came with it and never looked back. He was accepted to graduate school and took a second pay cut. But he stuck through and graduated. He kept doing research until he ended up the Director of Research in his Department, where he served for 30+ years. So it surprised me greatly that he would sit there and talk to me as if I were his intellectual equal. Recently I read over Dr. Coffey’s bio and came to find that he

“believes his main accomplishment may be in attracting young students and basic scientists to join the efforts of the Brady laboratories”


“he is only carrying on the long-standing heritage of the Brady Laboratory, which is to provide an opportunity for all willing and dedicated young scientists to develop their excellence in the pursuit of medical research.”

Is this guy for real? He shares his success with young scientists and feels that his greatest success is in inspiring others? Not in his great scientific discoveries? Believe me when I say this is unusual for someone in his position. I know less successful scientists who wouldn’t waste their time shooting the bull with some graduate student. I also don’t remember any of their talks either.

I just read an article about a study that suggested that nice people get paid less. I guess Donald didn’t get the memo. In a tribute to him, among many complements, Dr. William W. Scott said:

“He gives freely of his time to students, residents, fellow investigators and clinicians and is indefatigable. Combine this with his delightful sense of humor, his genuine love of people and his sense of fairness and you have a wonderful person which is what he is.”

I have to concur. I only met him once but he exemplified whatifing. He asked what if I could be a cancer researcher? What if I could make a difference. What if I could inspire others to do the same. He didn’t give up after 23 rejections. He didn’t let success get to his head. He shared his success and his passion for knowledge with everyone he came in contact with. He brought people together and broadened their field of vision. He made people ask questions that they had never asked before. I think the world is a different place because of Dr. Coffey’s whatifing.


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