Alan S. Rabson, a National Institutes of Health cancer researcher whose laboratory work with tumors in mice and rats helped advance the scientific understanding of several human diseases, died July 4 at a health-care community in Skillman, N.J. He was 92.
The cause was complications from cerebrovascular disease, said his son, Arnold Rabson.
In the NIH laboratories of the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Rabson performed and directed such research procedures as inoculating rodents with viruses to see what tumors might result and how they might interact to cause diseases. Those steps helped show how certain viruses might lead to such human diseases as cervical cancer and shingles — sometimes after years of undetected dormancy in the human body.
Dr. Rabson’s career progressed in 20-year increments, observed the Cancer Letter, an independent publication that covers cancer research and health care policy. It began in 1955, when he was a resident in the pathologic anatomy branch of the National Cancer Institute. In 1975, he was named director of the division of cancer biology, and in 1995, he was deputy director. He retired in 2015.
He simultaneously developed an unofficial — and unpaid — “medical practice,” referring cancer-patient callers to medical specialists and institutions that might best help them.
As a research physician and administrator, he looked after the care of patients participating in NIH clinical cancer studies. But he did not have the same bedside experience as a practicing oncologist, and he found a personal fulfillment in his interaction with patients — 14,000 over the years, the Cancer Letter estimated — whom he advised and counseled on the telephone.
“People called me and I helped them, and, apparently I helped them enough that they told their friends to call me,” he told the Cancer Letter. “And then each one has more friends and they multiply.”
Alan Saul Rabinowitz was born in Brooklyn on July 1, 1926, and grew up in Queens, where his parents operated a candy store. At a time when many colleges and medical schools had Jewish quotas for admissions, he changed his surname to Rabson in the hope it would sound less Jewish than Rabinowitz.
“Both mean the same thing — son of a rabbi,” Arnold Rabson said.
Alan Rabson graduated in 1948 from the University of Rochester and in 1950 from what was then the Long Island College of Medicine (now part of the State University of New York).
In medical school, he met his future wife, Ruth Kirschstein. She died in 2009 after a marriage of 59 years. She was an NIH pathologist who helped develop safety tests for polio and measles and she organized the NIH response to the AIDS epidemic.
In addition to their son, of Princeton, N.J., survivors include a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.
For most of their NIH service, the Rabsons lived in a small house on the NIH campus in Bethesda. This made it convenient for them to go to their labs on weekends, their son said. On Saturday nights, they often went to concerts at the Kennedy Center, but they always took medical papers with them, which they worked on before performances and during intermissions.
Dr. Rabson moved to New Jersey in 2015.
In 2005, the National Cancer Institute created the annual Alan S. Rabson Award Lecture for Intramural Research. In 2012, the NIH created the Alan S. Rabson Award for Clinical Care.
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly referred to the Cancer Letter as an NIH publication. It is an independent weekly newsletter. The story has been updated.