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James J. Fischer

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Madison - James J. Fischer, M.D., Ph.D., chairman of the Department of Therapeutic Radiology at the Yale School of Medicine from 1972 to 2002, died suddenly with his Nikes on while running on the beach near his home in Madison on Feb. 22, 2012.

Dr. Fischer was born in Hazelton, on Aug. 17, 1936, and grew up in Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor of science degree from Yale in biophysics, magna cum laude, in 1957. He received his medical degree from Harvard in 1961 and continued graduate work there, earning a Ph.D, in 1964, under the mentorship of Oleg Jardetsky. During this period he conducted pioneering studies on the use of nuclear magnetic resonance to study enzyme complexes, publishing a seminal paper on the topic in Nature in 1963. He then returned to Yale in 1964 to 1965 for an internship in internal medicine under the legendary Paul Beeson, followed by training as a Clinical and Research Fellow in the Department of Radiology at a time when the diagnostic and therapeutic divisions were in a single department.

Dr. Fischer joined the Yale faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Radiology in 1968, and was promoted to associate professor in 1970. In 1972, when radiation therapy became a freestanding department, Dr. Fischer was named as the Robert E. Hunter Professor and chairman of the Department of Therapeutic Radiology. He held this position until he retired as chair in 2002, after providing the department and school with 30 years of outstanding leadership. In his three decades at the helm, he built a balanced department renowned for strengths in basic radiobiology and radiation physics research as well in clinical radiation oncology.

Dr. Fischer carefully nurtured the development of the department's clinical programs in radiation oncology and medical physics into a unit that not only provided outstanding care for cancer patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital, but also reached out to provide or enrich the care for patients at hospitals throughout Connecticut.

Dr. Fischer was a caring, compassionate, and incredibly skilled physician, who provided the finest possible medical care and personal support to his patients at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He also served as a consultant to the departments of radiology at Uncas-on-Thames Hospital, Hospital of St. Raphael, Waterbury Hospital, West Haven Veterans Administration Hospital, and as an attending physician in radiation therapy, Lawrence & Memorial Hospital and The William W. Backus Hospital. After retiring as chair, he focused his efforts entirely on patient care, which he described as his favorite professional activity, seeing patients primarily at Backus Hospital.

Under Dr. Fischer's leadership, the research programs of the radiobiology section and experimental radiation physics section of the department also flourished, producing one of the world's major radiobiology research programs, with a strong set of faculty members and a rich portfolio of research projects in areas ranging from basic molecular biology to translational research projects aimed at improving the treatment of cancer, performed in close collaboration with members of the physics and radiation oncology sections of the department and with other departments of the Yale Cancer Center.

Dr. Fischer's own research focused on experimental and theoretical studies of the effects of radiation dose, fractionation, and protraction on tumor control and normal tissue tolerance; his seminal studies in this area helped to lay the groundwork for approaches now widely used in modern radiation oncology. With Drs. Alan Sartorelli in pharmacology and Sara Rockwell in therapeutic radiology, he developed the concept of targeting hypoxic cancer cells with hypoxia-activated pro-drugs, and he led several phase III randomized trials combining these drugs with radiation therapy. He also led laboratory projects examining potential mechanisms for improving the response of solid cancers to radiation therapy by modulating the oxygenation levels within the tumors, and performed several clinical trials evaluating the most promising of these approaches. He founded the biotechnology company, Ichthyox, based on his development, with Dr. Susan Baserga of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, of an engineered hemoglobin variant with improved properties for oxygen delivery to tumors.

Dr. Fischer was recognized internationally for his clinical and scientific expertise. He was an active member of all of the major professional societies in his areas of expertise. He served on advisory boards for many institutions, including the radiation oncology departments at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Fischer was an active member of the department softball team, the Hunter Accelerators, until breaking his ankle during a contentious game. He continued to be an avid cyclist and marathoner, and was frequently seen riding or running in Madison and Guilford. He also authored the novel, "Runner's Blood," combining his scientific and recreational interests.

Dr. Fischer is survived by his wife, Dr. Anne Curtis; his son, Henry W. B. Fischer; and his grandsons, Edward and Charles; his daughter, Gwendolyn Magnan and her husband, Richard; and his granddaughters, Elizabeth and Caroline; as well as by Rosie, Kiri, and Desi.

A memorial service for Dr. Fischer has been planned for 4 p.m. today, Feb. 29, at Battell Chapel, Yale University, 400 College St., corner of College and Elm Sts., New Haven. After the service, there will be a gathering at the nearby Graduate Club, 155 Elm St., New Haven.

Swan Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements, www.swanfuneralhomemadison.com

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to The Smilow Cancer Center, either online at www.yalecancercenter.org or by mail at Closer to Free Fund, PO Box 7611, New Haven, CT 06519-0611.
Published in The Day on Feb. 29, 2012
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