Memorial scholarship to celebrate the life of Jack Erban, M81
By Kris Willcox
In September 2020, the Tufts community lost a cherished member with the passing of John “Jack” Erban, MD, M81. His death, at the age of 65, from glioblastoma, is a loss felt not only by his family, but by the extensive community of people who cherished him as a colleague, friend, mentor and caregiver. Despite a lifetime of accomplishments in his field of breast cancer treatment and research, Barbara Weinstein says that her younger brother was not “a white coat on a pedestal. He was just Jack.” Friends and loved-ones describe Erban as a humble and gentle person, with a ready smile and relentless curiosity, whose chief passions were family, the field of medicine, and above all, his patients.
To extend his legacy, a growing group of donors including classmates, family members, and friends have created the John K. “Jack” Erban III, MD, M81, Memorial Scholarship at the medical school. The scholarship was initiated by Erban’s classmate Harlan Gibbs, MD, M81, an emergency medicine physician in Glendale, CA, who admired Erban’s service in teaching and research and was pleased to start off the scholarship, “out of respect for all Jack did for Tufts.” David Cutler, MD, M81, a family medicine specialist in Santa Monica, CA, was pleased to join Gibbs in supporting the fund.
“Jack and I met the first day of medical school,” he remembers, and the two would remain close friends throughout their four years at Tufts. “He was a great teacher, even then,” says Cutler. “His sharp intellect, calm demeanor and positive spirit were guideposts for all of us.”
After completing his MD in 1981, Erban remained a central figure in the Tufts community for life. As a faculty member, he taught generations of Tufts medical students, eventually becoming a full professor, and served as medical editor of Tufts Medicine for over three decades. His roles at Tufts Medical Center included division chief of Hematology and Oncology, and co-director of the Breast Cancer program. Through research, he made significant contributions in the field of breast cancer. David Wazer, MD, professor of radiation oncology and radiation oncologist in chief at Tufts Medical Center worked alongside Erban for decades, and described him as “the best physician I’ve ever met,” offering remarkable clinical skills and compassion to those in his care.
For their close-knit, Lebanese-American family, Erban’s graduation from medical school was a source of enormous pride. Almost as meaningful to their parents, Weinstein says, was his Mildred Ann Meyerson Award for Excellence in Patient Care, because it meant “that he cared, first and foremost, about people. That was Jack, from the very beginning.” Some of his earliest influences in medicine came from home, including his uncle, Farahe Maloof, MD, M45, who attended Tufts. Like the patients he would one day care for, Erban’s family was impacted by breast cancer, which claimed the lives of his aunt, and his mother.
His passion for medicine was matched by his dedication to family. He and his wife Lisa Erban raised three children, Laura, John and Stephen, and made time with extended family a priority. “Jack always loved to have people around,” Lisa recalls, “and he brought that out in me. I love that about him. We’ve always entertained at Christmas, and he’d just keep inviting more people.” Early in their marriage, the Erbans spent two years in rural Florida while he served in the National Health Service Corps, which had helped him cover the cost of medical school. “He thought that was a life-changing experience.”
For nearly 25 years, Erban served on the board of the Silent Spring Institute, an organization focused on the environmental causes of breast cancer, where he helped bring international recognition and visibility to the connections between breast cancer and chemicals like bisphenol A. His research, conducted through Tufts Medical Center, included a seminal study examining the efficacy of high-dose chemotherapy in conjunction with bone-marrow transplants. His study determined that this approach was no more effective than standard dose treatment, a finding that could spare patients unnecessary treatments, and bring greater focus to more effective therapies, and prevention.
“Many people have told me that Jack made them feel like they were the only patient he had,” says Lisa, “and that they knew he made everyone feel that way.”
In the last month of Erban’s life, David Cutler reached out to his old friend for guidance on a family member’s breast cancer treatment, not yet knowing that Erban was fighting his own battle with cancer. Even though he was coping with serious illness himself, David recalls, “he was incredibly generous with his time, and left the enduring impression that my problem was the most important thing when we spoke.” When Erban died, “I was shocked and sad,” he says, “but I was also left with a feeling of a full life—ended much too soon—that had come full circle, from a time when we were young, naïve and full of potential, to the end of life, when that potential is passed on to the future, through our students and our children.” By supporting the Erban Scholarship, Cutler hopes to extend his friend’s legacy, and ease the burden of student debt for recipients.
“Jack truly embodied the qualities we most admire in those studying to become physicians,” says Cutler, “and that makes this scholarship a fitting tribute.” For the Erban family, the scholarship provides a source of comfort as they mourn his loss. Weinstein says, “It gives us a chance to continue Jack’s work of helping Tufts medical students become the best doctors they can be.”