Midway through his medical career, gynecologic pathologist Robert Kurman, MD, received an offer to come to Johns Hopkins as the Richard W. TeLinde Distinguished Professor of Gynecological Pathology and Director of the Division of Gynecologic Pathology, one of the oldest and most highly regarded divisions of gynecologic pathology in the U.S. While the Professorship is within the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics, there is a rich history of close collaboration with the Division of Gynecologic Pathology. “Since the first day I set foot at Johns Hopkins I have never had a single regret,” Kurman says.
Kurman’s clinical work and research involves diagnosing diseases affecting the female reproductive organs and discovering what causes various types of cancers to develop in these sites. He and his colleagues review microscopic slides from patients’ tissues that are sent by medical providers from throughout the U.S. and abroad. “Generally, the question is whether the slides are from a malignant or a benign disease,” he says.
“The label of cancer places an enormous emotional burden on the patient and her family,” says Kurman. “It is critical that we make an accurate diagnosis of cancer versus a benign tumor. This can be very difficult at times. The treatment for cancer is often aggressive, removing the uterus and ovaries and leaving younger women sterile and young and older women without the benefit of important hormones that play a key role in their health.”
Today, as Kurman transitions toward retirement after nearly 30 years with the University, he is working to ensure that a new generation of doctors and educators carries on his legacy of life-changing work.
He and his wife have made a gift commitment from their estate that will endow the Robert J. and Carole C. Kurman Professorship in Gynecologic Pathology in the Department of Pathology. The goal is to provide promising researchers incentive and freedom to advance the diagnosis and treatment of gynecological diseases.
“Bob built the best Division of Gynecologic Pathology in the country,” says Ralph Hruban, MD, the Baxley Professor and Director of the Department of Pathology. “He hired world-class faculty who collaborate to provide great patient care, impactful teaching and cutting-edge research. Without a doubt, Bob’s many trainees are his greatest legacy, many of whom now hold leadership positions around the world.”
When Kurman first arrived at the Division of Gynecologic Pathology, it consisted of himself and a resident — now the division has more than 40 junior and senior faculty. The TeLinde Professorship allowed Kurman to extend the division’s research arm. By supporting gynecological pathology faculty and fellows and using seed money to launch pilot studies and generate much-needed data, the faculty nearly quadrupled outside funding during his tenure.
Most recently, Kurman and his colleagues developed a model for ovarian cancer based on a variety of factors, including molecular genetics, that allow gynecologists to develop new approaches to diagnosis and treatment and investigators to explore avenues of research that will lead to new methods of screening and prevention.
T.-C. Wu, MD, PhD, one of Kurman’s first fellows and an internationally recognized leader in the field of human papillomaviruses and cervical cancer, has succeeded Kurman as Director of the Division of Gynecologic Pathology. He and Hruban say Kurman’s “significant contributions” to the field spared many women unnecessary treatments.
In 2014, Kurman stepped down from the TeLinde Professorship to allow the University to appoint another one of his former fellows, Ie-Ming Shih, MD, PhD, to that position. “Dr. Shih is one of the leading scientists in the field of ovarian cancer and the driving force in our ovarian cancer program, and this has resulted in Hopkins being an international leader in the field,” Kurman says.
He remains indebted to Edward Wallach, MD, the professor emeritus and former Director of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics who recruited him to Johns Hopkins decades ago. The two were able to work side by side for years.
Kurman notes that because pathologists rarely meet with patients, the patients don’t recognize the critical role pathologists play in establishing a diagnosis to help direct treatment. As a result, grateful patients don’t often consider donations, one of the main sources of endowed gifts, to pathology departments. Kurman hopes his and his wife’s gift will spur other faculty members to become benefactors. In doing so, they would carry on a tradition of generosity to ensure that research, teaching and patient care at Johns Hopkins continue to excel.
Topics: Faculty and Staff, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Promote and Protect Health, Support Scholars