Dr. George W. Santos, 72, founded bone marrow transplant center

January 23, 2001|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Dr. George W. Santos, founder of the Johns Hopkins bone marrow transplant center, died Sunday of complications from cancer in Arlington Memorial Hospital in Arlington, Texas.

He was 72 and lived in Phoenix before he moved to Hilton Head Island, S.C., five years ago.

A world-renowned expert in bone marrow transplantation as a life-saving therapy for victims of blood diseases, Dr. Santos was professor emeritus of oncology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

He was one of the pioneers in the development of the procedure and performed the first bone marrow transplant in 1968. Over the years, the technique has become an important tool to fight leukemia and other forms of cancer.

Dr. Santos is credited with developing what is considered the standard of care in bone marrow transplantation.

"A whole generation of Hopkins-trained scientists looked to George as their intellectual and spiritual leader," said Dr. Richard J. Jones, director of the Hopkins bone marrow transplant unit. "He could be demanding, and his probing questions are legend."

Dr. Santos was first exposed to the idea of a bone marrow transplant in the mid-1950s, while working in the Navy Radiological Defense Laboratory in San Francisco. He and other scientists were studying the effects of nuclear blasts on organisms.

They saw that high doses of radiation would destroy a mouse's bone marrow, ultimately killing the animal. But some of the mice could be saved if they received a transplant of bone marrow from a healthy mouse. The discovery led scientists to speculate that a person with diseased bone marrow could be saved if the marrow were destroyed and then replaced.

The research inspired Dr. Santos, and when he returned to Hopkins, he dedicated his career to the technique. He and Dr. Albert H. Owens created the medical subspecialty known today as oncology - the study of tumors.

"Some of his greatest joys were the individuals who were suffering from a terminal disorder [and] who were saved and lived many years thereafter," Dr. Owens said.

Dr. Santos' first bone marrow transplants were undertaken at the former Baltimore City Hospitals - known today as Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center - where he was a visiting physician and assistant director of the medical oncology unit from 1962 to 1977.

"I recall his tenacity," said Dr. Georgia Vogelsang, a Hopkins oncology professor. "He was able to inspire people - his staff and his patients - to have faith and belief, inch by inch, that they would make progress."

His office had a wall covered with photographs of patients he had treated.

"He talked about his patients as if they were family members. They came first to him," said his daughter, Susan Santos Carey of Baltimore, "He loved his nurses as though they were the unsung heroes."

Dr. Santos served as the director of the Johns Hopkins Oncology Center from 1968 until his 1994 retirement.

"Many of the great strides we have made today in bone marrow transplantation as therapy for cancer and other diseases can be traced to [his] early research," said Dr. Martin Abeloff, director of the Hopkins Oncology Center and a colleague for nearly 40 years. "George was a pioneer in the true sense of the word. It took real courage to continue to do the research, because the conventional wisdom said it would never work. "

"He was a lively personality and, from the scientific point of view, was a keen intellect who thought through problems very well," said Dr. Victor McKusick, Johns Hopkins University professor of medical genetics.

Born in Oak Park, Ill., Dr. Santos received a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in physical biology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He received his medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In 1955, he began his internship at the Osler Medical Service at Hopkins.

For his contributions in the field of oncology, he received the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award for Distinguished Achievement in Cancer Research. The Hopkins Oncology Center's inpatient transplantation unit was named in his honor last year.

His 1952 marriage to Joanne Corrigan ended in divorce.

He had been a member of St. James Episcopal Church.

A memorial service is pending.

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, the former Carole Sullivan, whom he married in 1997; a son, George W. Santos Jr. of Sparks; two other daughters, Kelly A. Santos of Columbus, Ohio, and Amy C. Cauley of Jensen Beach, Fla.; and two grandchildren.

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