Leonard Zwelling


When I got to MD Anderson in 1984 and began collaborating with members of a then-fractionated department previously called Developmental Therapeutics led by the legendary J Freireich, I was told about “Eli.”  I had recently left the NCI where we had our own Eli (Glatstein) and I wondered who the local Eli was. I soon found out.

The attached commemoration of the late-Eli Estey, MD written by his friend Vinay Prasad appeared in MedPage Today on October 13, five days after Eli’s sudden and unexpected death.

First, the news hit me like a thunderbolt because Eli was still making active contributions to the care of patients with leukemia and to research.

Second, Eli had been a runner and was in great physical shape when I knew him.

Third, he was among the most unique individuals with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working and that collaboration was a strange one indeed for we had very different views about clinical trials and their design. His was more forward thinking than mine.

He was referred to me by another faculty member when Eli expressed an interest in performing some lab-based research. All his research up to that time had been in clinical trials methodology and the use of Bayesian biostatistics to analyze clinical data. After all, he was a math major from Yale and a product of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He had come to oncology after a brief stop in neurology. Why did he want to spend time in a molecular pharmacology lab?

Eli was quite simply one of the smartest people I have ever met. He immediately understood the mathematical basis of both three-dimensional DNA topology and the methods we were then using to analyze the effects of drugs that altered that topology. He hit the ground running and the very first project he did became an important publication in a matter of months. He then took the story on the road to major medical and cancer meetings in the spring of 1986. He was a natural and clearly could have had a career in basic science if the pull of clinical research and biostatistics wasn’t so strong. That was his love after all, not the DNA-morphing enzyme to which I had chosen to devote my life.

But as Dr. Prasad so ably describes in his blog, Eli’s real long suit was his mind. He could understand anything immediately. He could listen to an hour lecture and then identify the fatal flaw in the logic of the speaker and puncture a theory with one common sense question. As Dr. Prasad has said, that’s what was Eli’s longest suit—common sense.

On a far more personal note, my wife and I vacationed with Eli and his wife Cindy David and had many grand dinners and exceptional occasions to watch college basketball together during Duke’s run to the final game of the NCAA championship in 1986.

Eli also had a deep interest in history, particularly American history. He had countless books on the presidents all lined up in chronological order by president in his home in West U.

Eli was a kind individual always having a good word to say about everyone. He was a dedicated physician and a student of the natural history of acute leukemia and how doctors could change it.

As Dr. Prasad wrote, Eli was also representative of my generation of internists and oncologists who were the bridge between the early days of the physician-scientist and today’s world of corporate medicine. He was a throw-back, an intellectual, a thinker. He will be sorely missed. He certainly made significant scientific contributions, but he also made the world a better place with his kindness and his laser-like common sense.

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