Pulling Back the Curtain: Bob Löwenberg, MD, PhD

Professor of hematology at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and the Editor-in-Chief of Blood

What was your first job?
When I was a medical student, I took a job as a tour guide leading groups around Europe. My very first tour was to Austria, and, before embarking, I was given a list of people in the group. All of them were women, but the list didn’t include their ages, so I realized it could either be a tour full of older ladies or young, beautiful women. I was not disappointed when I learned that the latter was the case. My career as a tour guide was short, but it started with a positive experience.

What was your childhood like?

I had a good childhood. My parents grew up in Germany, where my father later studied medicine. In 1933, on the very day when Hitler came to power, my father and mother, a nurse, decided to emigrate from Germany, eventually settling in Groningen in the Netherlands where my father continued and completed his medical studies and started practicing as a physician.

My parents survived the war underground in Holland, and I was born soon after the war. When the Nazis occupied Holland, they tried to embark on a boat to the United States, but they were too late to get out of the country. If they had been able to escape, I would have been born a U.S. citizen.

The members of my family who survived escaped to different countries – the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Switzerland, Israel – so I have family all over the place. My grandfather died in Bergen Belsen, but my grandmother survived the concentration camp and was exchanged in a special Jewish Agency transport with other prisoners to Israel (her youngest brother had settled as an internist in Jerusalem). She later lived with us in the Netherlands. Her children (my aunts, uncles, and cousins) would regularly visit us, so, in spite of the distances that separated us, I became close with them. And I still am in touch with those family members, even though today they live in Melbourne, India, Vancouver, London, in a diaspora across the world.

In the Netherlands, my parents worked hard to build up their new life and their new family (me and my younger brother, who still lives in Groningen). They did not, however, put the burden of the war on my brother and me. Their situation – having to re-build their lives – reminds me of all the refugees today. My parents were not citizens of the Netherlands, they did not speak the language, they had to start from scratch, and integrate in a foreign society. They were so resilient – not unlike many immigrants who settled in the United States.

What kind of physician was your father?

Initially, my father had to work as a general practitioner simply because he had to make money; he could not specialize. Later, he became a pulmonologist at the university, completely dedicated to caring for his patients.

Was your father part of the reason you went into medicine?

I had a good relationship with my parents, and they played a major part in my own development, but the person I also wanted to mention regarding my career was my supervisor in my post-doctorate program, Dick van Bekkum, MD, PhD. He is one of the legendary pioneers of bone marrow transplantation and experimental hematology in the early days of these newly emerging disciplines. As a young graduate, I applied for a job as a PhD student with him and we immediately got involved in a vigorous debate during the interview – I was sure I would never get the job! But to the contrary, he enjoyed the challenge of the frank confrontation of thoughts, accepted me, and we worked together for many years, becoming good friends as well.

Dr. van Bekkum passed away six months ago, just before turning 90. I most admired his unabated fighting spirit until his last day and his independent and uncompromised vision. He was ambitious in trying to break new ground in the field of patient-centered research – for him, nothing was a bridge too far.

Did you think you would always go into medicine, or were you interested in anything else?

I was – and am – interested in so many things. When the deadline for declaring my studies in university was approaching, I was still considering different options. I decided to go for medicine, and I have never regretted that choice, but it wasn’t the only possible scenario for me. If I had made a different choice, I am certain I would have been challenged and excited by that job too. I believe it all depends on what you want and what you make out of a situation.

In a typical day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

Sometimes I ask myself, “What do I enjoy most during the week?” And the answer always has something to do with moving things forward into new directions. I don’t like just to take care of the household; I prefer to be involved in entering new scientific and research territories.

In addition, I really enjoy working together with colleagues to push new developments in various initiatives and expeditions within our own Department of Hematology in Rotterdam, as well as in European and American hematology. This is also one of the reasons why I like working at Blood, the flagship publication of not only of the American Society of Hematology, but our entire field.

As far as the worst part of the day, I lost a son to cancer three years ago. It turned our lives upside down and this tragedy is with me every minute of the day. He was a lawyer, and died at only 34 years old. It is, undoubtedly, the “down” of every day. My wife and I have three children – our middle son passed away. Our other two children, a son and a daughter, are both MDs.

Visiting a camp for underprivileged children in Kenya (November 2015), founded by Dr. Löwenberg’s son, Michiel.
Visiting a camp for underprivileged children in Kenya (November 2015), founded by Dr. Löwenberg’s son, Michiel.

Did you expect any of your children to follow in your footsteps?

No, my view was always that everyone should choose what he or she likes. This is exactly what I myself did as well. Each of my children, for instance, simply had different interests. Our oldest, who became a gastroenterologist, enjoyed joining me at the hospital on the weekend when I was on call; our younger son, who became a lawyer, did not like it. He did not feel attracted to seeing sick patients and blood.

My son and daughter, who now is a general practitioner, have actually both published in Blood. This was a coincidence – they had both published articles in the journal before I began my tenure as editor-in-chief. I found out when my secretary updated my CV with my recent publications, and she searched by the name “Löwenberg,” but, when I reviewed it, I found papers that I did not remember writing!

My oldest son did his PhD on an immunobiologic topic, and my daughter did her research in hemostasis and thrombosis.

Dr. Löwenberg as a medical student tracking through Mexico with his then-girlfriend and future wife.
Dr. Löwenberg as a medical student tracking through Mexico with his then-girlfriend and future wife.

How did you and your wife meet?

My wife is a psychiatrist. We got to know each other when we both were medical students and subsequently did our internships in surgery and obstetrics and gynecology in the Caribbean together. From there, we backpacked to Guatemala and Mexico, then returned to Holland together.

Do you and your wife still travel? What else do you do in your off-time?

We do not travel as often as we did in the past, but just before the ASH annual meeting in Orlando, I visited the Join for Joy camp in Kenya – this is an inspiring initiative based on the idea that sports and play can have a significant impact on children’s development and in broadening their perspectives. The program, run by the Join for Joy charity, offers children from the poorest rural areas in Kenya the opportunity to break out of their environment and enjoy themselves through sports and play, stimulating their youthful enthusiasm and imagination, while also promoting emotional and physical skills and education about other aspects of life that they might not have been exposed to otherwise. For me, it was a moving experience – not only to witness the changes (almost overnight) in these children, but also because the charity was founded by our son Michiel five years ago.

Occasionally, travel is also a part of keeping memories and history alive. One year ago I went back to Jever, a little city in northern Germany, where my mother was born and where my grandparents ran a small business before World War II. The town placed a memorial for the Jewish citizens of Jever at the site where the local synagogue had been set fire to on Kristallnacht in 1938. The memorial was named for my grandfather, who was the last chairman of the synagogue, and descendants of those former Jewish citizens gathered in Jever from all over the world to attend the ceremony. When you are younger, you don’t make time for that; I am at the age now where this has become more important. Without honoring those memories, all of that history would be lost.

The Löwenberg family on one of their favorite Italy vacations (Rome).
The Löwenberg family on one of their favorite Italy vacations (Rome).

When I am not working, I enjoy being with family. We have four grandchildren, all between two and four years old, and I enjoy them enormously. Watching them grow up with your own children as parents is very special.

How does it feel to be editor of Blood during its milestone 70th anniversary?

Blood has been a crucial and loyal partner for successive generations of hematologists. The Journal has faithfully reported the profound changes in clinical practice and biologic concepts that have revolutionized hematology during the last 70 years, and my goal – and the goal of our terrific team of colleague-editors and dedicated staff – is to continue to keep the needs of our current readership in mind. It is an honor to be the guardian of the Journal during this anniversary, and to be trusted to uphold the standards that our predecessors have established.

What questions do you ask when you are interviewing someone for a position?

In an interview, I always want a clear answer to the questions, “What do you really want to do in your future? What are your real interests? What drives you?” The answers to those questions should guide them in their decisions.

What advice would you pass on to early-career hematologists/oncologists?

Be realistic with yourself in your career objectives. Don’t force yourself into a particular direction; ask yourself what you like to do, what you are good at, and – first of all – follow your heart. At least, that’s what I have tried to do.

It’s important to enjoy your career, but it is also important to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. When you are younger, you have to make difficult choices, but once you make that choice, don’t look back. Just go for it.

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