Don Coffey was the Director of Research for the Brady Urological Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine for over 40 years. Fondly known as the “Chief”, he was the father of prostate cancer research. He was born in Bristol, VA, on Oct. 10, 1932. An undiagnosed and unrecognized dyslexic, he struggled through school, failing multiple grades. He eventually attended King College in Bristol, Tenn. In 1953, after leaving King College, he entered the University of East Tennessee.
In 1955, he was hired by the North American Rayon Company as a chemist during his last two years of college. After graduation in 1957, he was hired as an associate chemical engineer by the Westinghouse Electronic Corp.
Don related that one night, as he was meditating about what to do with his life, that the word “cancer” came to him. He went home to look up what the word meant and read that it meant “uncontrolled growth.”
He told his wife Eula that he had to go figure cancer out and he was encouraged by his former boss at North American Rayon, Lee R. Herndon, an alumnus of Hopkins, to go to Johns Hopkins University to work in cancer research. Don attended evening classes at McCoy College, the Hopkins night school, and soon obtained a night shift job of washing glassware at the Brady Research Laboratory.
Coffey became acting director of the Brady Urological Research Laboratory from 1959 to 1960, and left his position at Westinghouse. He applied to the graduate program in the medical school’s department of physiological chemistry and received his Ph.D. in 1964.
During the late 1960s, Coffey once again became involved in research with the Brady Institute during Guy Williams-Ashman’s tenure as director of the Brady Laboratory for Reproductive Biology. Upon Williams-Ashman’s return to Chicago in 1969, Coffey became director of the laboratory. He held the position until 1974, when it merged with the Brady Research Laboratory and Coffey was made director of the entire operation.
The Chief was fascinated with the concept of creativity. “How could homo sapiens have 95% of the same DNA as a chimpanzee, but we were the ones going to the moon?” For over a quarter of a century, Don was famous for giving his annual Saint Patrick’s Day Lecture to the Hopkins Community on the Origins of Creativity and Human Destiny. It was an annual event that we never tired of hearing. His principal questions were: Where did creativity come from and how did man fit in the universe?
“Give a monkey a typewriter and you will never see a book typed.” I personally went to work for Coffey when he came to give a mini-version of the lecture as a lunch time talk to our medical school class. Enthralled, I asked to see him. He welcomed me into his office one evening and asked for my life story. (That was his standard practice with all students.) I walked out several hours later with the task of figuring out how to make a scale model of how DNA could be folded into a nucleus. And so started my career in science. This type of story can be told by every person who ever worked with the Chief.
Don had a way of making us think beyond ourselves. He practiced meditation throughout his life and valued taking the time to think. He often said, when you get to work, notice what you were thinking about on the way in… that is what you should be working on. To help guide students in the art of creative discovery, he wrote the Final Exam–a series of guiding principles for science and life–starting with “If this is true, what does it imply.”
He understood that trying to understand and cure cancer was a passionate mission and vocation, not a job, and often talked about the hunt for the cure. A passionate student of American history, he was enamored with the early hunters who used long rifles to stalk game. He penned the “Creed of the Brady Long Rifles” in the 1970s to guide us all in the hunt. He recognized the need for a fort, where hunters could gather safely to talk about the hunt and swap stories to help each other. This safe haven has served as the grounding principle for research at the Brady Urological Insitute ever since.
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