In Memoriam: James M. Phang, M.D.

James Phang

James M. Phang, M.D.

CCR is deeply saddened by the recent passing of James “Jim” M. Phang, M.D., former Senior Investigator in the Basic Research Laboratory. After a months-long struggle with esophageal cancer, he died at home on January 29, 2023.

Jim was a long-standing NCI scientist for close to 50 years. His career was focused on the functions of the amino acid proline and its role in cancer. His discoveries provided seminal insights into tumor reprogramming and metabolic epigenetics and introduced novel strategies for cancer therapy.

Jim was born in Wuhan, China, on May 27, 1938, to Dr. Samuel H. Phang and Hannah Wang, the daughter of banker H.W. Wang. When his father took a medical fellowship in the USA, he was separated from his wife and children by the outbreak of World War II. The family was finally reunited in 1946, emigrating from China to the USA and settling in Los Angeles.

Jim received his B.A. at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, and earned his M.D. at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. He completed an internship and served as an assistant resident at Stanford Medical School before joining the NCI as a clinical associate in the Metabolism Branch. Jim became a visiting scientist in the lab of Robert F. Goldberger, then a Senior Investigator in the Metabolism Branch. His ties with the NIH were strengthened by meeting and marrying Ruth Van Dyke, who was an editorial assistant with the National Institute of Mental Health. He was married to Ruth for 46 years before she passed away in 2014 of cancer.

From 1990 to 1998, Jim served as the Chief of the Laboratory of Nutritional and Molecular Regulation. He was a Senior Investigator in the Laboratory of Comparative Carcinogenesis and Basic Research Laboratory. Jim retired in 2015 but continued to serve CCR as an NIH Scientist Emeritus in the Mouse Cancer Genetics Program. He published over 160 scientific papers throughout his career and continued to publish scientific reviews and essays after retirement.

Jim was not just a brilliant scientist, but also a well-loved friend of many at NIH. Jay A. Berzofsky, M.D., Ph.D., Chief of the Vaccine Branch and a close colleague of Jim’s, says, “Jim was always mild-mannered but when he spoke, usually had great insights to share. He was also a wonderful friend to those who knew and worked with him, and could always be counted on for help. Jim was a true ‘mensch’ who was loved by all, and he will be sorely missed.”

Jim is survived by his brother, his three daughters, Sara Elise, Laura Justine and Elizabeth Ann, his four grandchildren and his companion Arleen Cheston.

A memorial service will be held at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church at a date not yet determined.

Posted on Fri, 02/03/2023