Dr. Laurie Glimcher learned early on from her father, a prominent physician-researcher, that success in science was built on a basic principle: Big discoveries require big risks.
The younger Glimcher took that advice to heart. In the late 1990s at her Harvard immunology lab, Glimcher and her postdoctoral student began a series of experiments that colleagues deemed “crazy.” But after a year of trial and error, the lab had a eureka moment when it found that white blood cells could be reprogrammed, a seminal discovery that led to new ways to treat cancer.
“Most scientists do good work, but they don’t transform a scientific question,” said Glimcher. “I always felt the only way to do that is to think big and go after something that’s going to be really important.”
Today, as the chief executive of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Glimcher is going big again, taking what may be the greatest risk of her career. She has broken up a decades-long partnership with Brigham & Women’s Hospital and inked a deal with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to open a 300-bed Dana-Farber cancer hospital in 2028.
When the news broke in September, it was shocking — except for those who know the 72-year-old Harvard-trained physician-scientist. Former and current colleagues describe Glimcher as fearless and decisive with a steely resolve to get things done. Questioning the status quo has been a hallmark of her career.
Glimcher is hardly the first Dana-Farber executive to recognize growing tensions between her institution and the Brigham as well as its parent company Mass General Brigham over the future of cancer care in Boston. But she is the first to confront the issue head-on.
The Brigham partnership, dating back to the late-1990s, helped created one of the country’s top cancer treatment programs, with the academic medical center providing in-patient beds and Dana-Farber handling outpatient oncology services.
But not long after becoming Dana-Farber’s first female CEO in 2016, Glimcher sensed the changing dynamics between the two institutions in the Longwood Medical Area. And by this year, it had become clear the two partners had competing visions on how to fight cancer. Brigham and MGB maintain the best way to deliver that care is within a major hospital system, while Dana-Farber believes a dedicated cancer hospital can produce better outcomes and experiences for patients.
“Laurie has been very central to making sure that clarity of vision turns into actual action, and I don’t know if there’s another leader that would have done that,” said Dr. Kevin Tabb, CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health. “She deserves a tremendous amount of credit for not just articulating a clear vision in an unwavering fashion, but then finding a way to make it happen.”
Over the years, members of the Dana-Farber board had talked informally about a standalone hospital, but those discussions never got very far, said board chair Josh Bekenstein, one of the founders of Bain Capital.
“There have been people who have chatted and said, ‘It would be great to have our own hospital,’” said Bekenstein, who has served on the board for 25 years. “It was mentioned as a concept, but it was not something that there was an active pursuit of.”
But that began to change in 2020, after Dana-Farber inked a contract with the Brigham through 2028. It was apparent to Glimcher during those negotiations that if Dana-Farber wanted to control its own fate, it needed more of its own hospital beds. Under the current arrangement, Dana-Farber operates only 30 beds at the Brigham.
With the blessing of the Dana-Farber board, Glimcher reached out to Tabb in November 2021to have breakfast at the ‘Quin House, the private Back Bay club, under the guise of two hospital CEOs catching up.
Glimcher grew up in Brookline, one of three daughters of Geraldine and Dr. Melvin Glimcher. She would be the only sibling to follow her father into medicine. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion after Laurie Glimcher dissected a frog when she was 6 years old.
“My sisters were close to throwing up,” Laurie Glimcher recalled. “I was fascinated.”
Glimcher went on rounds with her father at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was an orthopedic surgeon. She would also work in his labs at MGH and Boston Children’s Hospital. Before she finished Harvard Medical School, she knew she wanted to focus her career on immunology research. She trained at MGH and the National Institutes of Health.
Glimcher became a professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, where she ran one of the world’s top immunology labs. She would author more than 350 scholarly papers and articles, and was elected into the National Academy of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.
Susanne Szabo was the post-doctoral student in Glimcher’s Harvard lab when the two turned the immunology field on its head with their critical discovery about how white blood cells help the immune system fight infection and protect against disease.
Szabo spent six years in Glimcher’s lab, which produced several major discoveries. In breaking up with the Brigham, Szabo said Glimcher is pursuing big questions about how best to deliver cancer care, much as she took on the big questions in immunology.
“I know her fierce doggedness,” said Szabo, now an immunology consultant. “She has a very good instinct in what is right.”
Glimcher met her first husband, Dr. Hugh Auchincloss, while they were medical students at Harvard. They started a family in the 1980s, while he was training to become a transplant surgeon and Glimcher was getting her lab off the ground.
It was one of the most difficult periods of her career, working full time with a toddler and a newborn. A third child would arrive a few years later. The experience would shape her as a leader to craft family-friendly workplace policies.
Her sons, Hugh and Jake Auchincloss, said their mother was hardly the superwoman archetype. Their Newton home was always a bit messy, and the garden she planted every spring died.
“Growing up, she demonstrated to me the value of ruthless prioritization,” said Jake Auchincloss, serving his second term in Congress as a Democrat from Newton. “She focused on two things and two things only — her children and her science. That means that much else was a haphazard affair.”
After her children were grown — daughter Kalah is a lawyer and son Hugh is a thoracic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital — Glimcher was in her 50s when she began thinking about a career outside her lab. She had already gotten a taste of the corporate world serving on the board of drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb.
That’s when Sandy Weill, a former CEO and chairman of Citigroup, came calling, seeking a new dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. Glimcher was an unusual choice because medical school leaders tend to have been clinicians or department chairs, but Weill wanted someone who could elevate the school into a research powerhouse. She would also become the first woman to lead Cornell’s medical school.
Glimcher was on the fence. She was 59 and had lived most of her life in Boston. It seemed another big risk.
Glimcher took it.
“We all thought her time at Cornell was going to be binary,” said Dr. Barrett Rollins, who has known Glimcher for 30 years and worked with her as chief scientific officer emeritus of Dana-Farber. “She’s going to do a fantastic job, or she’s going to crash and burn.”
Glimcher delivered. She christened a state-of-the-art research center and recruited dozens of top-notch scientists to staff it. She promoted more women to senior positions, and opened a day care on-site to help attract and retain women scientists.
“We were very disappointed when Laurie left after four years,” said Dr. Carl Nathan, chair of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell and a member of the search committee that recommended Glimcher. “This is a woman with powerful drive and capacity.… Don’t underestimate her.”
Glimcher succeeded Dr. Edward Benz Jr., Dana-Farber’s longest-serving CEO who, over nearly two decades, substantially grew the institution’s fund-raising, budget, and patient volume. Bekenstein, the Dana-Farber board chair, first got to know Glimcher when the two served on the board of the Waters Corp., a Milford lab equipment maker. He reached out to her when Benz announced in 2015 that he planned to retire.
Glimcher’s board directorships were part of a 2021 Globe Spotlight series on potential conflicts of interest when hospital CEOs moonlight on boards. She now only sits on one corporate board, Analog Devices, a Wilmington semiconductor company.
It was a difficult decision for Glimcher to leave Weill Cornell, but she was persuaded by her sons, who both live in Boston area. The deal was sealed when they sent flowers with a card that read: “Dear Mom, We love you very much, and we miss you. Please come back to Boston.”
That would set in motion one of the biggest shake-ups in Boston health care in decades. When Glimcher met Tabb at the ‘Quin in 2021, she congratulated him on BI Lahey’s recent acquisition of the Joslin Diabetes Center. Tabb told her that Joslin’s aging building would need to be redeveloped, but he wasn’t sure into what.
“I have a good idea,” she replied.
Glimcher laid out a vision for a new cancer hospital at the Joslin site across the street from Dana-Farber. She could tell that Tabb was not convinced Dana-Farber would break up with Brigham, but she had sparked his interest.
“If you think about the health care ecosystem,” Tabb said in a recent interview, “there are very few opportunities to design something from scratch around the needs of a patient.”
The two sides took their time to build trust and develop a relationship. They assembled teams to work out the details on how the two institutions could collaborate. Ultimately, after months of discussions spanning hundreds of hours, they agreed to a 60-year partnership to build a $1.68 billion hospital that would be owned and operated by Dana-Farber on the Joslin center site.
Meanwhile, leaders at MGB, the parent of the Brigham, believed they were on track to extend the contract with Dana-Farber and were caught off-guard by the deal with Beth Israel Deaconess. MGB has made it clear that it has no plans to shrink its footprint in cancer care and will maintain about 270 beds for cancer patients at the Brigham.
“I just want to emphasize that what we’re doing is not spending a lot of time on how this came to be,” said Dr. Anne Klibanski, CEO of MGB, in an interview before the Globe editorial board in September. “We need to plan so cancer care will continue with the Brigham even after the Farber leaves, and it will continue at MGH just like it always has, and we will keep doing the same thing we’re doing.”
Dana-Farber’s proposal faces intense scrutiny by state regulators who will examine whether the new hospital would drive up health care costs and affect quality of care. Even if approved, getting a new hospital up and running by the end of the Brigham contract in 2028 is ambitious given Boston’s notoriously slow building process.
Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, an insurers’ trade group, said she’s concerned the state might have too many hospital beds, which is likely to drive up costs for employers and consumers.
“We probably have an overabundance of duplicate care in close proximity,” said Pellegrini. “The question is: Do we need a standalone cancer hospital? Is that what is in the best interest of cancer patients?”
Glimcher, Pellegrini said, played hardball in this year’s negotiations with MGB to extend the Brigham contract, while simultaneously talking to Beth Israel.
“I was like, ‘Finally the woman plays the man’s game,’” observed Pellegrini. “She’s won the battle. Can she win the war?”
Glimcher, whose total compensation package in 2021 was just under $4 million, certainly doesn’t need a new hospital to make her tenure at Dana-Farber a success. On her watch, annual fund-raising nearly doubled, to about $407 million, in the fiscal year that ended in September, and the cancer center’s regional locations have also nearly doubled to seven. Its researchers have helped develop more than half of all cancer drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the past five years, according to Dana-Farber.
But if Glimcher’s career shows anything, mere success is not enough. She has always reached for the game changer, calculating the potential for big rewards against the consequences of failure.
“You need to be very, very careful if you’re going to risk something when you’re talking about patients. My north star was: What is best for our patients?” said Glimcher. “I feel like we did the right thing.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.