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ASCO Remembers Robert A. Buckman, MD, PhD

Dec 12, 2011

The Society sadly marks the passing of oncologist, author, and performer Robert A. Buckman, MD, PhD, who passed away in his sleep on October 9, 2011, at age 63. 

Dr. Buckman, an ASCO member since 1986, most recently worked as a medical oncologist at the Princess Margaret Hospital and Professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto. He was an adjunct Professor at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. He previously held positions at Toronto-Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Center and University College Hospital, London. He received his medical degree from St. John’s College at Cambridge University, and his doctorate degree at London University and The Royal Marsden Hospital. In 2003, Dr. Buckman was awarded the Fleming Medal of the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science; in 2004, he received the Order of the Chevalier of the Hospitaller Society of St Lazarus (International Palliative Care).

In 1979, Dr. Buckman was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease dermatomyositis, which was expected to prove fatal and led to his creation of a documentary film about dying, Your Own Worst Enemy. He in fact recovered from the illness and lived more than 30 years after the initial diagnosis.

A prolific writer, Dr. Buckman authored 14 books, a weekly column for the Toronto Globe & Mail, and numerous articles. Many of his writings and broadcasts are on physician-patient communication, a subject on which he was passionate. (View Dr. Buckman’s 2002 ASCO Annual Meeting presentation on communication.)

Together with his colleague Walter F. Baile, MD, of M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Buckman created a series of videos on CD-ROM that could be used to teach communications skills to physicians. The series remains part of the M. D. Anderson Interpersonal Relationship and Communication Enhancement Program (I*CARE) online collection of resources and is “a fitting memorial and testimony to Rob’s imagination and creativity,” Dr. Baile said.

Dr. Buckman had a love of comedy and a long side career in broadcasting, particularly in popular science. He participated in panel shows and scientific programs on BBC Radio in the 1970s-1980s. He contributed scripts to the sitcom Doctor on the Go and acted in the Pink Medicine Show comedy show. He was one of the performers and writers of the first Secret Policeman's Ball fundraiser in 1979, with actors Billy Connolly, John Cleese, and Eleanor Bron. After emigrating to Canada in 1985, Dr. Buckman continued broadcasting. He won a Gemini Award for his series Magic or Medicine?; his latest series, Human Wildlife: The Life that Lives on Us, aired on the Discovery Channel and won two awards at the Chicago Television Festival in 2003. He produced more than 45 humorous medical information videos with Mr. Cleese. At the time of his death, Dr. Buckman was making a series of short films on Top Ten Tips for Health.

“Rob loved to be on TV,” recalled Dr. Baile. “He surprised me when I was visiting Toronto by announcing we were going on a TV talk show. I was terrified because this was not my shtick. However, Rob had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand with his wit and ability to tell stories. Soon I was laughing too and got relaxed enough to answer a few questions—but I never forgot this little surprise he pulled on me.”

Dr. Buckman was active in the humanist philosophy movement, serving as president of the Humanist Association of Canada and as chairman of the Advisory Board of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s bio-ethics center at the United Nations. In 1994 Dr. Buckman was named Canadian Humanist of the Year.

“Rob was sort of a Renaissance man—a scholar who liked to quote Dante, a gifted clinician, a great teacher, and an accomplished scientist. And, like many comedians, he had the ability to see the ironies of life and turn them into something funny, revealing those kernels of truth that we all seek to distill from experience,” Dr. Baile said.

Dr. Buckman is survived by his first wife, Joan-Ida van den Ende, and their two daughters, Joanna and Susie, and by his second wife, Dr. Patricia Shaw, and their two sons, James and Matthew.

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