Pulling Back the Curtain: Martin S. Tallman, MD

Chief of the Leukemia Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York

What was your first job?

I grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, and was a paperboy in elementary school. During the summers, I woke up very early in the morning, went to the paper distribution center, put the sections of the paper together, loaded them into the large basket on the front of my bicycle, and biked the delivery route.

That was my first job and also my worst job! It was torture dragging myself out of bed in the early-morning darkness.

My favorite job was working at one of the concession stands at the Ravinia Festival, an outdoor summer music park that is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony. In contrast to delivering newspapers at 5 a.m., it was a terrific summer job. We worked until intermission, and then we were given free admission to the park. The concerts were not limited to classical music; there were performances from legends like Ella Fitzgerald, pop stars, and a variety of contemporary bands. Ravinia is similar to Tanglewood outside of Boston, to which my wife Wendy and I make at least one pilgrimage every summer. We like opening night (often James Taylor) and movie night when the Boston Symphony plays a medley of film music. I also always look forward to hearing Yo-Yo Ma if he is playing.

If you hadn’t gone into medicine, what career could you see yourself in?

Medicine is such a rewarding profession, but if I weren’t in medicine, I think law would be a fascinating career. I never thought much about law when I was younger, but we have four children and two of them are lawyers: Sarah works for the Natural Resource Defense Council, an environmental organization (She says, “I work for trees!”), and Sam is a deputy district attorney. When Sarah was preparing for the bar exam, we would go through the test questions from her bar review course textbook, and I learned to appreciate the intricate facets of the law.

Did any of your children go into medicine?

Our youngest, Jacob, is a second-year medical student at the University of Chicago. He was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and spent two summers working in the laboratory with one of my colleagues, Ross Levine, MD. The other children (the two lawyers and one elementary school teacher inspired by the Teach for America program) were not interested in medicine, but Jacob has a scientific mind, and we think he will flourish.

Did you always know you wanted to go into medicine?

I did – I never thought much about any other field except a transient flirtation with music. More on that later…

My path has been very clear. As a high school student, I had a close childhood friend whose father, Bernard Adelson, MD, was an internist and a nephrologist. We spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, and I always looked forward to talking with his father about his patients. He was a warm and compassionate physician. The diseases in internal medicine he dealt with had great appeal to me. I always enjoyed science, but the conversations I had with him about his day-to-day routine motivated me to pursue medicine.

When I was an intern at Northwestern University, there were two physicians who inspired me to focus on hematology as a field and acute leukemia as a specific disease. Harry Miller, MD, and Steve Kurtides, MD, both brilliant internists and hematologists were really responsible for my early fascination with acute leukemia. During my hematology rotation early in my internship year, Dr. Kurtides invited me to join him at the ASH annual meeting. I attended and have been intrigued by hematology and acute leukemia ever since. That was in 1980, when the meeting could still fit into one hotel. I’ve only missed one ASH annual meeting since then, when our daughter Miriam was born. (Her birthday is December 8, so I am never home for it; she reminds me of that every year!).

My commitment to clinical investigation in acute leukemia was clearly solidified at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and University of Washington in Seattle, where I had additional inspiring role models during my fellowship: Fred Appelbaum, MD, and E. Donnall Thomas, MD.

What advice would you pass on to mentees and younger hematologists/oncologists?

Firstly, I would encourage fellows to focus on a particular area or disease as early as possible. I’ve been passionate about hematology from day one. Since I was an intern, I’ve always wanted to work in the area of acute leukemia. The disease was the most intellectually interesting to me, and it is appealing to look at blood cells under the microscope.

I would also share with them what I learned from my mentors. Leading by example, Fred emphasized the value of investigating important, fundamental issues. Ask yourself, “What are the most important questions in the disease today?” You can conduct a small study that may shed light on a minor issue, and that may be worthwhile, but to advance the field in a major way one needs to address the central and most important questions.

Dr. Thomas demonstrated the value of conducting a series of successive studies. It may sound like a simplistic concept, but he stressed the importance of conducting a series of related studies, with each subsequent study building on what is learned from the last. That strategy is likely to result in genuine advances in treatment and outcome.

I also would recommend that young hematologists/oncologists get involved in collaborative groups. It’s intellectually rewarding and establishes lifelong personal and professional relationships. It has been a privilege for me to continue as a member of the Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group Leukemia Committee and the North American Intergroup after several decades. ECOG Leukemia Committee members with whom I continue to work closely and from whom I continue to learn include: Jacob Rowe, MD; Hillard Lazarus, MD; Selina Luger, MD; Elisabeth Paietta, PhD; and Mark Litzow, MD – among many others.

Finally, I would say, “Shoot for the stars in all of your endeavors.”

What have you learned about yourself through your career in medicine?

I’ve learned how essential it is to make room for life outside of work. It’s such a privilege to be in medicine – caring for patients, conducting research, and trying to advance the field. Academic medicine has become very complicated; there’s an enormous amount of paperwork, and conducting clinical trials that identify new drugs is becoming more and more complex. There has never been a more exciting time to work in the field of hematologic malignancies, but it’s also never been easier to be consumed by the work.

Dr. Tallman with his wife, Wendy, and their four children (Jacob, Sarah, Miriam, and Sam) at a Michigan football game.
Dr. Tallman with his wife, Wendy, and their four children (Jacob, Sarah, Miriam, and Sam) at a Michigan football game.

Life outside of work is just as important. Making time for family and friends provides an essential balance. I have a great appreciation for athletics, as well; I think it clears the cobwebs from one’s mind.

Our children are grown now, but when they were young, I tried my best to be home as much as possible. As many of us do, I traveled frequently to meetings in some beautiful locations, but even if I had the opportunity to stay an extra day or two to explore the area, I would try to limit the sightseeing. I didn’t want to miss out on any events in our children’s lives – not so much for them, but for me!

There was one thing that made it easier: Wendy is a wonderful partner in life and has been a fantastic mother to our four children. She runs our “corporation,” as I like to call it – she’s the president, the CEO, the CFO, and everything in between.

When you interview someone for a residency or fellowship position, what type of questions give you the most insight into the candidate?

Rather than asking a series of specific predetermined questions during an interview, I prefer to put the paperwork aside and have a conversation about their life and interests.

I have very few prepared questions, but sometimes ask, “What might I find you doing on a Saturday or Sunday at 1:00 o’clock?” It’s a way of learning about their interests outside of work – not just their academic accomplishments. When you’re recruiting an individual to join a team, it’s important to get a feel for the person. You want to know more than his or her academic track record; you want to know how he or she will fit in.

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

The best part of my day is going home! I think I better explain that. I have a major problem in life: I married a wonderful cook, which is a problem because I need to constantly watch my waistline. It appears to be an inherited culinary talent gene – Wendy’s mother was a great cook, her grandmother was a great cook, and she’s a great cook. Many recipes are handed down over the generations. Wendy is such a good cook, after eating lunch we all stand up and ask, “What’s for dinner?”

Every evening, after a long day I look forward to having dinner with Wendy and discussing the day’s events. I usually ask her, “Any news from the troops today?” During the actual workday though, seeing patients in the clinic is my favorite part of the day. I also immensely enjoy making daily teaching rounds with house staff and fellows.

My least favorite part of the day will resonate well with others I believe: filling out uninteresting, but obligatory, paperwork.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in your work life?

At Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I am fortunate to have the opportunity to mentor and work with outstanding fellows. I’m proud to have contributed, in a small way, to the education and development of young hematologists and oncologists who are the future of our field. There is not much more rewarding than that.

What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?

Before I entered medical school, I was in the University of Michigan School of Music for a year as a cellist. I was very active in music growing up – which is why the job at the Ravinia Festival was such a terrific opportunity.

At one point, I considered pursuing music as a profession, but in the end, I didn’t think I was talented enough to make it a career. I always had an interest in science, too, so after a year in the School of Music, I transferred into the liberal arts college to complete pre-med courses.

Did you grow up in a musical household?

My mother was very musical, so that probably played a role. My brother Philip pursued music as a career. He’s actually in show business. He writes and arranges music for film. His first major breakthrough was as music editor on The Notebook, and he’s in the credits for Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games, among other films.

What do you do in the off-hours?

I enjoy playing tennis. I’m not great, but I think it is the best game in the world. I could use some tips on my overhead smash.

If I would make the time, I’d play the cello more often and join a quartet or a community orchestra.

If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?

I would love to transport myself into the future to 100 years from now to see how our daily lives and medicine will have changed. Thinking about all that has transpired in the last 100 years in hematology, I can only imagine what could be coming in the next 100 years.

I understand the desire to go back in time – I would like to have dinner with Abraham Lincoln or Paul Cezanne – but having the ability to peer into the future has a lot of appeal.

Who would play you in a movie about your life?

I have been known to joke with patients and ask, “Would you believe me if I told you that I am confused with Richard Gere in airports?” But it’s true! My children tell me it’s only because we have the same salt-and-pepper hair (Jacob feels obligated to add “more salt than pepper!”). So, he’d be my first choice. And then, of course, my brother could score the movie.

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