You’re Studying Dirt

Dr. Judah Folkman keeps a reproduction of a 1903 New York Times article in his archives. In it two physics professors explain why airplanes could not possibly fly. The article appeared just three months before the Wright brothers split the air at Kitty Hawk.

In the early 1970s, Folkman proposed an idea in cancer research that did not fit what scientists “knew” to be true: that tumors did not generate new blood vessels to “feed” themselves and grow. He was convinced that they did. But colleagues kept telling him, “You’re studying dirt,” meaning his project was pointless science.

Folkman disregarded the mockery of the research community. For two decades, he met with disinterest or hostility as he pursued his work in angiogenesis, the study of the growth of new blood vessels. At one research convention, half the audience walked out. “He’s only a surgeon,” he heard someone say.

But he always believed that his work might help stop the growth of tumors, and might help find ways to grow blood vessels where they were needed — like around clogged arteries in the heart.

Folkman and his colleagues discovered the first angiogenesis inhibitors in the 1980s. Today more than 100,000 cancer patients are benefiting from the research he pioneered. His work is now recognized as being on the forefront in the fight to cure cancer.

Learning: “There is a fine line between persistence and stubbornness,” Folkman says. “I have come to realize the key is to choose a problem that is worth persistent effort.”