John Ultmann, an internationally recognized expert on Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and a professor in the department of medicine and a former director of the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center, died at his home in Hyde Park on Oct. 23 from complications of lymphoma. He was 75.

Ultmann was a pioneer in efforts to distinguish between the many different types of lymphomas. He was particularly well known for his work on precise staging of Hodgkin’s disease and the uses of staging as a guide for treatment.

“John Ultmann was an early proponent of the multi-disciplinary approach to treatment of lymphoma, which is associated with a tremendous improvement in the curability of the disease,” said Samuel Hellman, the A.N. Pritzker Distinguished Service Professor in the department of radiation and cellular oncology and former dean of the biological sciences at the university. “He was known within the university as an outstanding teacher who trained many of the current leaders in the field, as a key player in assembling the world-renowned medical oncology group here, and as a compassionate physician who took excellent care of his patients until just a few weeks before his own death.”

Ultmann’s influence on the field of medical oncology also extended to the policy arena. He served as chairman of the Board of Scientific Counselors for the NCI Division of Cancer Treatment from 1976 to 1980, as president in 1981-82 of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, as president and chairman of the board from 1984 to 1986 of the Association of American Cancer Institutes, and as chairman from 1985 to 1990 of the National Coalition for Cancer Research.

“When the chips were down, he could always be counted on to help,” said Vincent DeVita, director of the Yale Cancer Center and former NCI director.

“When I first became director of the NCI’s treatment division, in 1974, we faced intense criticism over the drug development, screening, and clinical trials programs,” DeVita said. “The solution was to face the issues straight on, so I asked John Ultmann to chair the Board of Scientific Counselors.

“Where others would have shied away, John took it on, and with his usual charm, wit, intelligence, and extraordinary energy, helped orchestrate the biggest organizational changes ever undertaken in the treatment program,” DeVita said.

“He even brought an extra person to the table,” DeVita said. “When things got hot he would often remark: ‘my Grandmother used to say….’ and loosen up the group with a homily from Grandma or anyone else he could conjure up. He made the difficult work fun, and the changes he helped bring about have improved the lives of many thousands of cancer patients worldwide.”

At the same time that he was helping orchestrate cancer policy and funding issues, Ultmann continued to teach.

“He was someone who set very high standards, for himself and for others,” said Janet Rowley, the Blum-Riese Distinguished Service Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago. “He showed extraordinary devotion to the medical students and young faculty, taking them to concerts and the opera, making sure they never entirely lost sight of the world beyond the hospital. Students liked John because he was very direct. You always knew where you stood with him. He let you know right away if he disagreed and you could discuss and resolve the issue.”

“He influenced a whole generation of oncologists on the importance of clinical trials and bringing oncology forward as a clinical science,” said Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA Division of Oncology, who was a fellow at University of Chicago in the early 1980s. “He was a doctor who represented patient care, basic research, and clinical research. He was a role model to many of us. Because John Ultmann did everything and did it well, we called him ‘the Ultimate man.’”

Ultmann was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1925. At the age of 10, after his mother died of cancer, he decided to devote his life to cancer research. In 1938, his family fled the country to escape persecution, arriving in New York City on Nov. 4 of that year.

Ultmann attended the Bronx High School of Science from 1940 to 1943. Soon after graduation he became a U.S. citizen and was drafted into the Army. He served in the intelligence service during World War II and saw action in Italy. After the war, he returned to Austria where he helped identify and interrogate war criminals and gather information for their trials at Nuremberg.

In the spring of 1946, after being discharged from the Army, Ultmann enrolled in Brooklyn College. That summer, he transferred to Oberlin College. He left Oberlin in 1948 without graduating to begin medical school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

As a medical student at Columbia, he worked with Alfred Gellhorn, one of the first specialists in medical oncology. They collaborated in basic and clinical research on leukemia, lymphoma, and chemotherapy for the next 20 years.

Ultmann earned his medical degree in 1952, then completed residency and a fellowship at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in 1955. After a research fellowship at Columbia, he joined the university’s faculty in 1956.

In 1968, Ultmann was recruited to the University of Chicago, where he helped revise the medical school curriculum, bringing more contact with patients into the traditionally classroom-oriented first two years of medical education.

In 1973, he coordinated the university’s successful application to NCI to form the University of Chicago Cancer Research Center. He directed the center until 1991.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, John Ultmann was a leading advocate for the precise diagnosis and staging of Hodgkin’s disease, which turned out to be extremely important in the choice of therapy,” said Harvey Golomb, professor and chairman of medicine at the University of Chicago. “Ultmann also trained many distinguished cancer specialists, including several who are now directors of other cancer centers, such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Miami.”

The author or co-author of more than 400 published papers, review articles, book chapters, editorials and abstracts, Ultmann served on the editorial boards of most of the major cancer journals, including Cancer Research, the Annals of Internal Medicine, the Journal of Clinical Oncology, and Blood. He served on dozens of national and international committees. He received numerous honors, including honorary degrees from Heidelberg University and the University of Vienna, as well as an appointment as honorary professor at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

He also served as associate dean for research programs for the division of the biological sciences at the University of Chicago from 1978 to 1984 and as dean for research and development from 1985 to 1988.

In the 1990s, because of close personal connections established over the years with many patients and their families, Ultmann took on an important role in fundraising for the medical center. He was the facilitator of a $21 million gift from the Duchossois family in 1994 to build a new ambulatory care center, the Duchossois Center for Advanced Medicine, and for establishing the John Ultmann Professorship in Medical Oncology, currently held by one of Ultmann’s former trainees, Everett Vokes, section chief of hematology/oncology at the University of Chicago.

This close doctor-patient connection originated “not only from his scientific renown, but also from Dr. Ultmann’s more personal qualities—his compassion as a physician and his commitment as a friend,” said Richard Duchossois. “It is a consequence of a relationship between a family and their doctor that has blossomed for more than a decade.”

Survivors include Ultmann’s wife of 48 years, Ruth; two daughters, Monica Ultmann, of Saint Louis, and Michelle Ultmann, of Pittsburgh; a son, Barry, of Chicago; and five grandchildren.

Donations may be made to the University of Chicago, c/o the John E. Ultmann Fund, University of Chicago Cancer Research Center, MC1140, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., Chicago, IL 60637-1470.

A memorial service will be held at the university at a later date.