In Brief

Medical Innovator Douglas J. Marchant, A47, M51, Dies

The Tufts School of Medicine professor emeritus established one of the first breast-health centers in the country
December 13, 2017

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Douglas Jeffery Marchant, A47, M51, who forever changed the medical world’s approach to women with breast disease, died on October 9 at the age of 91.

A professor emeritus in obstetrics and gynecology and surgery, Marchant taught at the School of Medicine for 35 years and is credited with an important innovation in medical care for women:  one of the first multidisciplinary breast health centers in the United States.

Douglas Marchant. “Although he was a firm taskmaster, people learned so much from him because he had a true surgical mentality—he expected perfection,” said Robert Kennison, M60.Established in 1978, the Tufts Breast Health Center at Tufts Medical Center broke with the traditional siloed approach that isolated practitioners and specialists and made it difficult for patients to understand their options for care, said John K. Erban, M81, a senior medical oncologist and clinical director of the Cancer Center.

“He was visionary,” Erban said of Marchant. “He brought together specialists from all aspects of patient care under one roof, and that was totally novel. He saw the value of forming a team that put the patient at the center of everything that they did. “

The Breast Health Center, which will mark its 40th anniversary next year, draws thousands of patients every year who benefit from Marchant’s unique model of care and the Center’s ongoing advances in detection and treatment, Erban added.   

Born in Malden, Massachusetts, Marchant came to Tufts on a Navy scholarship. His studies extended to MIT where he trained in aeronautical engineering; he would serve as a Navy radar technician in Texas during the war. The G.I Bill allowed him to graduate from Tufts 1947 with a degree in biochemistry.

Marchant put himself through medical school by working in the emergency unit of a Lynn, Massachusetts, hospital, and carpooling to Boston. He graduated from the School of Medicine in 1951 and went on to complete residencies in surgery and obstetrics.

Board-certified in two specialties, Marchant began his academic career at the medical school as a teaching fellow in gynecology in 1954. He became a full professor of obstetrics and gynecology in 1975 and was also a professor of surgery from 1983 to 1992.

Marchant joined Tufts New England Medical Center in 1956. In 1977, he was named director of the Tufts-New England Medical Center Cancer Institute, now the Tufts Medical Center Cancer Center.

Robert Kennison, M60, retired from the gynecology and obstetrics department at Tufts Medical Center, was one of hundreds of students who studied under Marchant and worked closely with him as a resident.  

“He taught me a terrific amount about surgery,” Kennison said. “Although he was a firm taskmaster, people learned so much from him because he had a true surgical mentality—he expected perfection.”

In 1978, Marchant established the Breast Health Center as part of the Institutes’ patient services. In those days, breast-care concerns fell to gynecologists. “Dr. Marchant was uniquely interested in all aspects of women’s health,” Erban noted.   

Marc Homer, professor emeritus of radiology at the School of Medicine, joined the Tufts Medical Center’s radiology department in 1977 and said the Breast Health Center’s approach was “remarkable and revolutionary.”

Historically, women who discovered a lump in their breast were often uncomfortable telling their doctors, Homer said. Only after a routine mammogram would the cancer come to light—and by then, the risk of dying had increased significantly.

But the 1970s ushered in a new frankness about women’s health, one in sync with the open and frequent communications fostered by the Breast Health Center, he said. “I loved the center, because each of us was a specialist, but we all had one goal, which was diagnosing breast cancer and helping women with its complex health issues,” said Homer. He developed the Homer needle while working in the Center, which helps surgeons locate and remove tumors identified via mammograms well before they are detectable by touch.

At the heart of the Breast Health Center was Marchant: meticulous and warm, supportive and open-minded.  “He welcomed anything that could make what we did better for the patient or easier—or less harmful. He had this gentle manner and this wonderful smile,’ said Homer. “I had never met a patient who didn’t tell me that Doug was one of the most wonderful physicians that they ever met.”

After receiving numerous teaching accolades from Tufts—including a Distinguished Faculty Award—Marchant stepped down from his positions at the School of Medicine and Tufts Medical Center in 1992 and established a new Breast Health Center at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I. He retired in 2002.

Over the course of his career Marchant served as president for the Society for the Study of Breast Disease, the International Breast Society (and editor-in-chief of its journal, Breast Disease: An International Journal), the Gynecology Urology Society, the Society of Pelvic Surgeons, and the Obstetrical Society of Boston.

A passionate outdoorsman and an avid fly fisherman who loved to collect and tie flies, he wrote for sports journals in his retirement. He is survived by his wife, five children, and six grandchildren.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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