Posted: March 1, 2019
Waun Ki Hong, MD, the “father of chemoprevention” and renowned cancer researcher and mentor, died on January 2, 2019, at the age of 76.
Dr. Hong’s illustrious career began in the South Korean Air Force as a flight surgeon during the Vietnam War. After his military service, Dr. Hong completed his internship at Bronx/Lebanon Hospital in New York City and his residency at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Boston. During his 9-year tenure at the VA Medical Center as chief of Medical Oncology, he helped establish the hospital’s oncology training program, marking the beginning of his decades-long journey as a mentor to hundreds of physician–scientists.
Dr. Hong joined the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in 1984 as chief of the Section of Thoracic Head and Neck Oncology, later becoming the head of the Division of Cancer Medicine there until he retired in 2014. An IASLC member since 2006, Dr. Hong’s seminal work in head and neck cancer documenting the use of chemotherapy and radiotherapy as an effective alternative to laryngectomy for cancer of the larynx led to organ preservation across numerous cancer types.
Dr. Hong also spearheaded the investigation of multiple agents to prevent cancer occurrence, later known as chemoprevention. In addition, he helped pioneer the concept of personalized therapy as one of the principal investigators of one of the first therapeutics trial in this realm—the Biomarker-Based Approaches of Targeted Therapy for Lung Cancer Elimination (BATTLE) trial.
During his career, Dr. Hong was the recipient of several notable awards including the David A. Karnofsky Award from the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the Gold Medal of Paris from the International Congress on Anti-Cancer Treatment, and the American Cancer Society Medal of Honor Award. A die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, perhaps the greatest honor came in 2015 when he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park, which sailed right over the plate.
“Ki could initially appear quite awe inspiring, given the remarkable accomplishments and the matchless work ethic, but he really was a warm, kind, sensitive, and generous human being,” said Fadlo R. Khuri, MD, president of the American University of Beirut and a mentee of Dr. Hong’s. “He was an absolutely transformative mentor for me and for a whole host of individuals across more than 3 decades. There are few people one meets of whom it can be truly said that they the world and and the lives of those in it substantially better. Waun Ki Hong was just such a rare individual. I will miss him the rest of my life.”
Dr. Hong is survived by his wife, Mi Hwa, his two sons, Edward and Burton, and four grandchildren. He will be missed by his many friends, colleagues, mentees, and patients. ✦