Dr. James Alexander Wolff, a pioneer in the field of pediatric hematology/oncology, died on Dec. 24 in Pompano Beach, Fla., at the age of 98. He was a longtime summer resident of Edgartown where he and his wife had owned a family home since 1963.
Dr. Wolff was professor emeritus of pediatrics at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He attended the Horace Mann School in New York city and went on to Harvard College where he played the tuba in the Harvard College Band and was an editor of the Harvard Crimson. He obtained his medical degree from New York University Medical School and then began his internship in pediatrics at Lenox Hill Hospital. In 1941, before he could complete his first year, he was drafted into the army. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed in North Africa and in Italy. As a medical officer in the army he administered blood and plasma transfusions to frontline causalities prior to their evacuation to the base hospital, and this work inspired and interested him in the field of hematology and in blood banking. In the campaign to liberate Italy he was awarded a silver star for heroism on the battlefield.
After the war ended he returned to New York city to finish his internship at Lenox Hill. In 1946 he left New York to work with Dr. Louis Diamond at Boston Children’s Hospital as a resident and then a fellow in hematology. While in Boston he played an instrumental role in novel, groundbreaking research in hematology/oncology. Working with Dr. Diamond and Dr. Sidney Farber, he participated in one of the most important discoveries in pediatric medicine in the 20th century, administering a simple compound, Aminopterin, systemically to children with leukemia and causing remission in what had been a universally lethal disease.
Dr. Wolff returned to New York city and joined the staff of Babies Hospital at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University. At that time there was no specialty of pediatric hematology/oncology and no staff position in the hospital, and Dr. Wolff volunteered his time as director of the hematology clinic of Babies Hospital while maintaining a practice in general pediatrics for 10 years in Riverdale, N.Y. In 1959 he was appointed the first full-time director of pediatric hematology, giving up his pediatric practice to devote all his efforts to clinical research in blood disorders and cancer.
As director, Dr. Wolff slowly built an academic unit in pediatric hematology/oncology, training and mentoring the next generation of specialists in the field. In hematology, his clinical research focused on the treatment of erythoblastosis fetalis (Rh disease) and the use of desferroxamine and transfusions in children with thalassemia. In oncology he helped establish the combined tumor clinic at Babies Hospital and pioneered a multidisciplinary approach to the treatment of children with cancer. Dr. Wolff was one of the first members of the Children’s Leukemia Group that became the Children’s Cancer Study Group and led to many clinical studies of cancers in children. In 1972 he became a tenured professor of pediatrics at Columbia where he advanced the teaching mission of the university, cared for children with cancer and conducted clinical research until his retirement in 1981.
After retiring from Columbia he became the director of the Valerie Fund Center for Blood Diseases and Cancer in Children at the Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J. In 1988 he finally retired from medicine. In 1991 his groundbreaking work for children with cancer was recognized with the establishment of the James A. Wolff Professorship in the Department of Pediatrics at Columbia University. Ten years after retirement at the age of 85 he still found time to write an article for Medical and Pediatric Oncology, First Light on the Horizon: The Dawn of Chemotherapy, recounting his extraordinary experience in working with Dr. Farber and Dr. Diamond. In 1996 Dr. Wolff received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from Babies Hospital for his outstanding clinical service, his contributions to clinical research, and his compassionate mentoring and training of a generation of pediatric hematologist/oncologists.
Dr. Wolff married Janet Loeb in 1946. Mrs. Wolff was an advertising executive in New York and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 1998. Dr. and Mrs. Wolff retired to the Vineyard and Fort Lauderdale in 1981 where they enjoyed an active social life, playing tennis, golf, and bridge with many friends and with their children and grandchildren. He served as the fleet surgeon of the Edgartown Yacht Club and was a master bridge player.
He is survived by his wife of 67 years and his four children, James Alexander Wolff Jr., John Kendall Wolff, Barbara Wolff Amstutz, and Timothy Grant Wolff, their spouses, 10 grandchildren, and his family of patients he so bravely and compassionately cared for.
In lieu of flowers, please send contributions to the Hope & Heroes Children’s Cancer Fund to support the Herbert Irving Child & Adolescent Oncology Center at Columbia University Medical Center. Contributions can be made by calling 212-305-1420 or mailing a donation to Hope & Heroes Children’s Cancer Fund, 161 Fort Washington Avenue, IP-7 New York, NY 10032.