Dr. Brad Patterson, 91; cancer researcher known for empathy

Among other roles,  Brad Patterson was director of cancer control at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Among other roles, Brad Patterson was director of cancer control at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

As a physician, father, or friend, Dr. Brad Patterson asked this question thousands of times: “How are you, really?” Pay attention to the comma. He did.

The brief pause signaled the start of a serious conversation that ended with Dr. Patterson finding ways to help those who sought his counsel.

“He was a great listener and had a bedside manner that enabled people to feel he was really listening to him,” said his daughter Becky Bruns of Holland, Mich. “He was a source of comfort for people all over the world who would call him when they were sick. They had heard Dr. Patterson was someone who would listen.”


Dr. Patterson, whose legacy includes the McGraw/Patterson Center for Population Sciences at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, died April 10 in his home in Shelburne, Vt. of aspiration pneumonia. He was 91 and lived in Wellesley and Brookline for many years before retiring to Vermont.

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Not just a good listener, Dr. Patterson thought deeply about ideas that inspired researchers. Through persistence, he also brought about changes that rippled through Boston’s medical community and cancer research.

When the McGraw/Patterson Center was dedicated in 2007, his son — Dr. William B. Patterson, who died of a heart ailment the following year — spoke at the ceremony about how his father had been an early voice “questioning radical mastectomy for breast cancer.”

“He would ponder out loud whether such aggressive and disfiguring surgery was really necessary and whether smaller procedures might not give as good or better a result, especially considering the whole patient,” his son said. “We know now that he was right, but he was one of the first surgeons to suggest this, and his female patients are grateful.”

Dr. Patterson also persuaded Dana-Farber to institute a no-smoking policy throughout the institute at a time when such a move was radical.


“It was the first hospital in Boston to do it, and the other hospitals in Boston followed suit,” said Dr. Jane Weeks, director of the McGraw/Patterson Center. “It’s kind of hard to imagine now that people were smoking in hospitals, but they were. In some ways it was a small act, but it had big repercussions. That’s exactly what Brad was like: small, ground-breaking acts at the time that ended up being really important.”

Simple tasks could draw as much attention from Dr. Patterson as surgery. He taught his children and grandchildren how to clean a fish and fix a screen door. Listen intently, he would say, and you can tell a bird by its song. Look closely and you can separate planets from stars and call them by name.

“We had tons of bird books, tons of plant books, tons of dictionaries,” said his daughter Linda of North Ferrisburgh, Vt. “It was not just, ‘Oh, look, that’s interesting.’ We would go look it up. With my Dad, it was just a case of curiosity.”

The youngest of three children, William Bradford Patterson was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., and graduated from the Loomis School in Windsor, Conn.

He finished his studies early at Harvard College, worked as an analytical chemist in a New Jersey explosives plant, and served in the US Navy at the end of World War II. Afterward he went to Harvard Medical School, graduating in 1950.


Dr. Patterson trained as a surgeon at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and began researching cancer in the early 1950s. After a few years at Boston City Hospital, he became chief of surgery at Pondville Hospital in Walpole, where he also conducted cancer research. Though he later characterized that time as “4½ frustrating years,” it provided a springboard to return to Boston for a fellowship at New England Deaconess Hospital and a teaching position at Harvard Medical School.

He left Boston again in 1970 to be a surgical professor in New York at the University of Rochester, and returned eight years later to become director of cancer control at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Brad was the first head of cancer control at Dana Farber,” Weeks said. “He was very early in having a vision of cancer prevention and control being a central part of the mission of the cancer centers.”

Dr. Patterson married Helen Russell Ross, a Radcliffe College student he met on a blind date, in May 1943. She died in 2008.

“The perception that I have been supporting my wife and children for almost 50 years has given way to the realization that it has been the other way around: Helen and the kids have been sustaining me,” he wrote in 1993.

Always drawn to the outdoors and physical activity, Dr. Patterson would set off for a jaunt on Vermont’s Long Trail at an age when most spent their days reclining. At 89, he dove into Lake Champlain.

“Dad, long after he could walk or hike more than a few feet, was planning his next trip on the Appalachian Trail or the Long Trail,” Linda said. “That, like music, never left his mind.”

Dr. Patterson “loved the water, whether it was swimming or sailing,” his son Stuart of Hingham said during two gatherings in Vermont last month to celebrate his father’s life. “I always marveled at how Dad swam – it looked like he could swim as far and as long as he wanted, without really working hard. He lived his life in the same way.”

In addition to his three surviving children, Dr. Patterson leaves nine grandchildren.

At the Vermont gatherings, Becky read a letter Dr. Patterson wrote to his children in 1972 after returning from a funeral. With candor that defined his conversations as a physician, he discussed his own eventual send-off.

Don’t hand the reins to “some mealy-mouthed cleric who happens to be available,” he instructed. “Get one of those people you know I respect, who can be counted on to say something which approximates the truth.”

Flowers? “Keep them sparse.” Music? “No hymns that cater to damp handkerchiefs.” And forget about a cemetery. “I don’t really like that ride to a grave. Ugh,” he wrote. “I don’t think anyone else likes it.”

He asked that his ashes be scattered over Lake Champlain, near his Vermont home, and that those who missed him would “meet at someone’s house to let it all hang out.”

“I have great faith in the healing power of a group who confront such occasions honestly, break bread together, tell old stories,” he wrote. “This for me is the good part of a wake, but I don’t feel it has to last all day or all night.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard