Ferenc A. Jolesz, 68; radiologist advanced neurosurgery field
Ferenc A. Jolesz gave up his neurosurgery practice when he moved to Boston from Hungary in the late 1970s, but he never stopped thinking like a surgeon.
During a 32-year career as a radiologist and researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he fathered a new field of imaging to enable surgeons to better see the brain under their scalpels and “spawned a revolution in neurosurgery,” said Dr. Jonathan Lewin, who chairs the department of radiology at Johns Hopkins University.
More recently, Dr. Jolesz, 68, who died Dec. 31 of a blood clot in his lung, helped pioneer the use of ultrasound to perform noninvasive surgeries.
“He was always someone looking for a novel approach,” said Dr. Jonathan Kleefield, director emeritus of neuroradiology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a friend of 35 years. “When it seemed that most things had been exhausted, he had another idea.”
Dr. Jolesz, whom his friends called “Frank,” was also known for his charm, wit, and mentoring of younger doctors.
“There are many, many scientists who owe their careers to his vision and direct mentorship,” said Lewin, who considered Dr. Jolesz a role model. “People all over the world owe their start to him, his vision, his generosity and his mentorship.”
His style was “charmingly blunt,” according to his friend Dr. Charles R.G. Guttmann, director of the Center for Neurological Imaging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an associate professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School.
There is no doubt that Dr. Jolesz was a scientific genius – “a fountain of ideas,” Guttmann said — but he was also a social genius. He cared deeply for his family, his students, and his colleagues, and his passion was both deep and contagious, Guttmann said.
“I don’t think I know anyone else who has been capable of living his life so intensely without wasting a morsel of his time,” Guttmann added.
He was also simply a good friend to his colleagues, said Dr. Clare M.C. Tempany, the Ferenc Jolesz chair of radiology research at Brigham and Women’s. He asked questions about people’s home lives, she said, remembered the answers, and always followed up.
“He just had this amazing ability to connect with people on immediately meeting them, identifying their potential, and making them better people than they ever thought themselves to be,” she said. “He made everybody feel like they were his best friend and his only friend.”
In his work, Dr. Jolesz essentially created the fields of interventional and intraoperative MRI, using scanning machines to both guide surgeons who would otherwise be operating blind, and to direct the use of needles and lasers to treat cancer and other diseases, without the need to cut open patients.
Dr. Jolesz was one of the first to come up with the idea of using MRI to guide surgery, if not the first, Lewin said. He also managed to persuade General Electric to invest $150 million in the idea, creating the first machines and launching the field.
“He actually took the concepts of using MRI to guide interventional procedures and made it a reality,” said Lewin, who is also senior vice president of Integrated Healthcare Delivery at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “He spawned a revolution in neurosurgery.”
With ultrasound, Dr. Jolesz used MRI to help direct multiple sound waves, which when combined can heat tumor cells and other tissue enough to kill them. The MRI can also measure the dose of ultrasound, which hadn’t been possible to carefully control before, thereby making the procedure much safer, Dr. Jolesz told the Globe in 2012.
MRI-guided focused ultrasound is now being studied in 61 different medical conditions. Dr. Jolesz was instrumental in figuring out where the technology could best be used and was in the process of exploring its use to treat Alzheimer’s disease, said Dr. Neal Kassell, chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation, a medical research education and advocacy group on whose advisory board Dr. Jolesz sat.
Born in Hungary, Dr. Jolesz completed his medical school education at Semmelweis University in Budapest in 1971 and a research fellowship in biomedical engineering and computer science at K. Kando College of Electrical Engineering in 1973. He moved to Boston in 1979 to complete a neurology fellowship at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Biomedical Research Institute.
In the early 1990s, when Dr. Jolesz suffered a life-threatening illness that left him hospitalized and near death for several months, he never missed a day of work, holding meetings at his bedside. Heroic efforts on the part of his care team at the Brigham and his wife, Dr. Anna Jolesz, helped him survive, said Kleefield, also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “He could have curled up and said, ‘There’s not much I can do except live from day to day,’ but that’s exactly what he decided not to do.”
Later in life Dr. Jolesz needed two kidney transplants, though he had seemed “stable and strong” in recent months, Guttmann said.
In addition to his wife of 43 years, Dr. Jolesz leaves two daughters, Dr. Marta Jolesz of Baltimore and Klara Jolesz of Portland, Ore.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Friday in the Joseph B. Martin Conference Center at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Kleefield said he expects that Dr. Jolesz’s death will push his colleagues to accomplish even more.
“We’ll hope that the people he inspired will use his passing as an extra kick start,” Kleefield said.