James B. Nachman, pediatric cancer specialist, 1948-2011

Pediatric cancer specialist James B. Nachman, professor of pediatrics—affectionately known as “Doc Nach”—died Friday, June 10 from a suspected heart attack while on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. He was 62 years old.

An internationally known cancer expert and chairman of several Children’s Oncology Group national study committees, Nachman was an authority in the medical management of childhood cancers—especially leukemia and lymphoma. He helped develop a treatment regimen known as “augmented post-induction therapy” for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and led the clinical trial, published in 1998, that demonstrated a substantial improvement in survival for patients with ALL who had a slow response to initial therapy. These studies helped lead to the high cure rate for this disease today.

He also did important work on understanding which patients with Hodgkin’s lymphoma were at greatest risk for therapy-related second cancers years later and used that knowledge to adjust the initial therapy for those most at risk. He was a key player among Chicago specialists in the treatment of bone and soft tissue sarcomas, serving as the medical oncologist for the University of Chicago’s limb-salvage program, which worked to save the arms and legs of adolescents with bone cancer.

“Jim was an outstanding clinician, teacher and clinical researcher,” said John Cunningham, professor of pediatrics and chief of pediatric oncology. “He made seminal observations in leukemia and lymphoma that have impacted the lives of many children and adults with these diseases. He was an outstanding doctor, beloved by his patients, their families and his colleagues. He was an irreplaceable member of our cancer team. We will miss him deeply.”

“He was an incredible chemotherapist, devising novel therapies for patients who did not respond to standard therapies,” said colleague Charles Rubin, associate professor of pediatrics. “Jim was totally devoted to his work. He spent all of his time taking care of patients, teaching students, residents and fellows. He always encouraged the patients to live their lives, and do everything that other kids do. He helped them by obtaining tickets for ballgames, and insisting on them going to school. There was no one quite like him.”

“Jim was a remarkable person who cared deeply for his patients, colleagues, students and house staff,” said Kenneth Polonsky, dean of the Biological Sciences Division and the Pritzker School of Medicine and executive vice president for medical affairs. “He always had a smile and a good word. The world was made better by his presence.”

Born Aug. 28, 1948 in Chicago, James Burt Nachman grew up in the South Shore neighborhood until the family moved to Highland Park in 1963, when he was in high school.

“My father is a pediatrician, and I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician since 4 years of age,” Nachman recalled in a 1989 interview. Since children who need “the most attention and help are oncology patients, I was naturally attracted to that specialty,” he added. “The life and death challenges of oncology appeal to me. I want to make a difference if I possibly can.”

He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois in 1970, earned his medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University Medical School in 1974, followed by a residency in pediatrics and a fellowship in hematology/oncology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He came to UChicago for part of his residency in 1979 and joined the faculty as an assistant professor in 1980. He was promoted to associate professor of clinical pediatrics in 1985 and professor in 1999.

Nachman was active in the national Children’s Oncology Group, and chaired three international committees on the use of augmented ALL therapy. He was also a founding member of the Ponte de Legno ALL Consortium. A recognized yet accessible leader in his field, he served as a consultant for physicians dealing with difficult cases from around the world.

Despite substantial academic commitments, Nachman devoted many hours to his patients’ welfare and progress long after they left his formal care. He established lasting friendships with many of his patients and their families.

Outside of medicine, Nachman was known for his enthusiasm for all sports, servingas a basketball coach for the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and Maccabi Games teams. “He was especially fond of the Chicago White Sox,” recalled Cunningham, “but he followed everything from the National Basketball Association to fourth-division English soccer, as well as Broadway plays, where he was a successful angel investor.”

Nachman never married and had no children. He is survived by his father, retired pediatrician Adolph Nachman, of Highland Park, who earned his BS in 1932 and his MD in 1936 from the University of Chicago; his brother, Robert, of Evanston, who received a master’s degree in English from the University in 1973 and is now a partner with Barack, Ferrazzano, Kirschbaum and Nagelberg; and his sister Cathy Nachman, of Highland Park, a teacher and golf coach at Highland Park High School. His mother was the late Rosalind Munk Nachman, also a UChicago graduate.

A service of remembrance for family and friends will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday, June 16 at North Shore Congregation Israel, 1185 Sheridan Road in Glencoe. A University memorial service will be held at noon on Thursday, July 21 at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.

In lieu of flowers, friends may contribute to the James B. Nachman Pediatric Cancer Research Fund by sendinga check payable to “The University of Chicago” to the James B. Nachman Pediatric Cancer Research Fund, Medical Center Development, Attn: Callie Johnston, 1170 E. 58th St., Chicago, IL 60637.