In Memoriam: David Morse Livingston, MD, Renowned Scientist and Esteemed Mentor

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Dana-Farber colleagues and innumerable others in the field were saddened by the unexpected death of David Morse Livingston, MD, on Sunday. Livingston was 80 and hailed as a “giant in cancer research,” who not only made key discoveries, but also forged novel collaborations that opened new paths in cancer science.

“There was no sign that some kind of health crisis was imminent,” said his daughter, Catherine Livingston. “This is why everyone is so shocked.”

 In the near half-century that he spent at Dana-Farber, Livingston held numerous high-level posts and served as a valued mentor to myriad students and junior scientists, including Nobel laureate William G. Kaelin Jr., MD.  

The news of Livingston’s unexpected death reverberated through the Institute on Monday. “David was truly a larger-than-life figure – I cannot believe he is gone,” said Myles Brown, MD, director of the Center for Functional Cancer Epigenetics, who trained in Livingston’s lab in the 1980s.

Laurie H. Glimcher, MD, president and CEO, said in a statement:

“When Worcester’s Robert Goddard, the father of space travel, was a boy, he used to sit in his cherry tree and dream about flying to Mars. Much later, a hurricane knocked the tree down and Goddard wrote in his diary, ‘cherry tree gone; have to carry on alone now.’ I think that is how many of us are feeling today: that we have lost not just a source of comfort but a source of inspiration. David Livingston made it possible for us to dream big about the future of Dana-Farber because that was how he saw it, and his unflagging enthusiasm and love for the Institution and everyone in it lifted our hearts and spirits every day. Now we have to carry on without him. But surely there is no better way to honor his memory than to do what he spent his life doing.”

Kaelin said that Livingston “was one of the world’s leading scientists, but that only scratches the surface as to why he will be missed. He was a spirited polymath who could fill a room with his intellect and signature laugh.  He trained scores of successful scientists and was a coveted advisor to cancer center directors, pharmaceutical companies, and philanthropic organizations around the world. When I entered David’s laboratory in 1988, I was immediately inspired by his intellect and infectious enthusiasm. He methodically sculpted me into a scientist, teaching me how to frame and tackle important scientific questions. And his mentorship didn’t end when I left his laboratory- it continued throughout my career. My eventually winning the Nobel Prize says more about David than it does about me.”

Brown said that Livingston’s passing was all the more surprising because just two weeks previously he had hosted an annual breast cancer research retreat at the Livingston family farm in Colrain, Mass. “David was in rare form as always,” recalled Brown, “Asking insightful questions of every speaker, interspersed with jokes and quips in a variety of languages.”

“All of us are deeply saddened by David Livingston’s sudden death. He brought so much energy and expertise to the cancer research enterprise that his contributions are significant and lasting. We have arrived at a promising point in the history of cancer research because of David. He will live on through the many researchers he mentored and worked alongside as a colleague and a leader,” said Ned Sharpless, MD, Director, National Cancer Institute.

Livingston held the Charles A. Dana Chair in Human Cancer Genetics at Dana-Farber and was the Emil Frei III Distinguished Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS). He was also the deputy director of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC) from 2000 to 2019 and was director and physician-in-chief of Dana-Farber from 1991 to 1995. He was a member of the DF/HCC Executive Committee and a member of the Dana-Farber Executive Committee for Research.

A prominent expert on the molecular origins of breast and ovarian cancer, Livingston focused his research on genes that regulate cell growth, including the tumor suppressor genes Rb, p300/CBP, BRCA1 and BRCA2. His work has been the cornerstone of many studies of cancer susceptibility linked to BRCA function and mutations. By understanding the tumor suppressive properties of BRCA1 and BRCA2, he paved the way for studying novel approaches to breast and ovarian cancer prevention.

Livingston’s approach “changed the way cancer science is done in Boston” with his emphasis on collaboration, said William Hahn, MD, PhD, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Dana-Farber.

“David Livingston was a giant in cancer research,” said Tyler Jacks, PhD, founding director of the David H. Koch Institute of Cancer Research at MIT. “His laboratory’s work helped shape how the field now understands key genetic events in the development of breast cancer and many other cancer types. He was instrumental in bringing together investigators across the whole cancer continuum.”

Jacks said Livingston was critical to development of the Bridge Project, a research effort between DF/HCC and MIT’s Koch Institute, which over the past 12 years has funded more than 70 teams of investigators to tackle some of cancer’s most challenging problems. “David was central to stimulating the best minds to collaborate and bring the most innovative approaches to uncover new ways to detect and treat the disease,” added Jacks. “His death is felt deeply by our whole community.”

Edward J. Benz Jr., MD, president and CEO emeritus of Dana-Farber, said that the Institute “just won’t be the same without David Livingston. Whether as a world-class scientist, one of the true founders of the Dana Farber/Harvard Cancer Center, institutional leader, mentor, colleague or friend, he was someone who touched all of us with his energy, conviviality, fierce commitment to our mission, and loyalty to our people. David will forever be a major part of Dana Farber’s DNA.”   

David G. Nathan, MD, president emeritus of Dana-Farber, said, “I met David when he was a Brigham intern and I was a brand-new Brigham hematologist. I was deeply impressed then and remained so. He was extremely bright, inventive, and honest. I followed his career with great interest. In 1995 when I became DFCI President he was the first DFCI faculty member with whom I sat down to plan the future. He played an enormously important role in our recovery. 

“Beyond his fine mind was a great sense of humor and understanding of where the other person is coming from. He will be sorely missed. He surely cannot be replicated.” 

James DeCaprio, MD, a hematology-oncology researcher, said that Livingston had been a guide and a mentor since DeCaprio arrived at Dana-Farber in 1986, “and helped me in so many ways to promote my career – even to this day. He cared deeply for so many people.”

As a scientist, said DeCaprio, Livingston “came up with experiments that were absolutely fearless, challenging in their execution, but so insightful into bringing new ways of thinking about new and old problems. He was a formidable opponent to cancer.”

DeCaprio noted that Livingston helped create large collaborative efforts, including one between Dana-Farber and the Sandoz pharmaceutical company. The relationship evolved into the long-running collaboration between Dana-Farber and Novartis, which has yielded many important insights and progress in drug development.

Livingston was born in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in Salem. He recently recalled in a Dana-Farber “Unraveled” podcast that he caught the science bug at age 11 when he received a subscription to the New England Journal of Medicine as a gift from a relative. He couldn’t understand the writing, but he liked the pictures and the Massachusetts General Hospital case histories.

He subsequently received his bachelor’s degree, cum laude, from Harvard University in 1961 and his MD, magna cum laude, from Tufts Medical School in 1965. He trained in internal medicine at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and did his scientific training at the National Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. He joined the Harvard and Dana-Farber faculty as assistant professor of medicine in 1973.

“He spent his entire life in the greater Boston area except for two stints at the National Institutes of Health,” said Catherine.

His research was focused on proto-oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes that regulate cell growth in the body and, when they are damaged or lose their normal controls, can lead to cancer. In recent years, his work involved the key molecular steps that trigger the development of breast and ovarian cancer.

Among his many awards and achievements, he received the prestigious Pezcoller Foundation-AACR International Award in 2017, recognizing his significant contributions to translational cancer research. In 2019, he was recognized for his remarkable 45 years of service to Dana-Farber. Livingston was a member of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He had been a member of editorial boards of numerous scientific journals and authored or co-authored more than 235 published scientific articles, including within the past year.

Mentoring had always been a joy for Livingston. “There is nothing like watching a person grow, watch them sprout their mythical wings, and begin to think on their own and begin to ask questions that simply take your breath away,” he said in the podcast.

His most famous protégé, Kaelin, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2019, approached Livingston in 1987 and asked if he could finish his postdoctoral fellowship with him. “David taught me the art of experimental design – how to design really effective, penetrating experiments that would get to the heart of a question. He really helped me to think like a scientist.”  

In addition to his wife, Emily, and his daughter Catherine, of Washington, DC, Livingston leaves another daughter, Julie Livingston, of New York City; a stepson, Jeremy Maltby, of Washington, DC, and five grandchildren.

A funeral is scheduled for Thursday at 10 am at Temple Israel, 477 Longwood Ave. in Boston. Interment will be at Sons of Jacob Cemetery in Danvers, where Livingston’s parents and grandparents are buried.

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