Clarence Karzmark, radiation oncology pioneer, dies at 84

Clarence Karzmark

Clarence J. Karzmark, PhD, one of the first physicists to apply his knowledge to the practice of radiation oncology, died Jan. 16 in a care facility close to his home in Palo Alto. He was 84.

As a professor in the Department of Radiation Oncology, Karzmark was a pioneer in developing equipment and treatment techniques basic to the evolution of modern radiotherapy, most notably the development at the medical school of the country's first linear accelerator, or LINAC, used for radiation therapy treatment of cancer.

LINAC allowed doctors to give their patients better controlled doses of higher energy ionizing radiation, greatly improving the radiation's accuracy and effectiveness.

Among Karzmark's other accomplishments were developing the technical aspects of a successful treatment for the skin cancer, mycosis fungoides, and along with colleagues, devising a rigorous dosimetric system for the treatment of Hodgkin's disease. He also coauthored the landmark reference text, Medical Electron Accelerators.

After earning a docorate in nuclear physics from the University of Indiana in 1952, Karzmark came to the medical school, where he served as chief of the Division of Radiation Therapy Physics from 1959 to 1980. He remained involved in the division's activities until he retired in 1988.

Throughout his career, Karzmark, known to colleagues as "Karz," worked to promote the role of physicists in radiation oncology. He established at Stanford one of the nation's first programs for the training of physicists embarking on a medical career. "I gave up a tenured physics position to come to Stanford and train under Karz," said Peter Fessenden, professor emeritus of radiation oncology.

Fessenden and another former Stanford colleague, Bryan Hughes, MSc, wrote in a remembrance of Karzmark: "His concept of the role of physics in radiation oncology was sometimes in conflict with medical colleagues. He usually prevailed, however, in large part because he had the attention of oncology residents in his classes."

Another colleague, Leslie M. Zatz, professor emeritus of radiology, remembered arriving in 1958 at Stanford as a fellow in the radiology program. "I found a scientifically oriented radiotherapy section that was blazing new trails in oncology," he said. "The physics section under the leadership of Karz was a key factor in the department's ability to apply new machines in new ways with carefully worked out mapping of radiation dose."

As the 14th president of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, Karzmark was instrumental in addressing the need of U.S. medical physicists to have a journal in which to publish. As a result of his efforts, AAPM began publishing the journal Medical Physics in 1974.

Karzmark is survived by four children, Peter, Kathleen, Sarah and Cameron, and three grandchildren. He was remembered in a private family gathering.