Stanford professor Ronald Dorfman, a founder of hematopathology, dies at 89

Ronald Dorfman

Ronald Dorfman, an emeritus professor of pathology at the Stanford University School of Medicine who played a key role in advancing the study of diseases of the lymph nodes and of hematopoetic cells, including a disorder that bears his name, died June 15 at Stanford Hospital of heart failure after a short illness. He was 89.

“We have lost a giant in the field of pathology, and a truly wonderful person,” said Stephen Galli, MD, chair of pathology and the Mary Hewitt Loveless, MD Professor in the School of Medicine. Dorfman, MBBCh, FRCPath, and fellow pathologist Richard Kempson, MD, came to Stanford from Washington University in St. Louis in 1968. Together the two men co-founded and co-directed the surgical pathology laboratory at Stanford Hospital. Dorfman held this post for nearly 35 years until his retirement in 1993.

A world-renowned pathologist, Dorfman was known both for his diagnostic skill and his scholarly contributions, particularly to the understanding of lymph node diseases. He also helped to develop the subspecialty of hematopathology, a branch of pathology focused on diseases of the hematopoetic, or blood-forming, cells. He subsequently co-founded the Society for Hematopathology in 1981 and served as its second president. In 1993, he was invited by the United States and Canadian Academy of Pathology to present the Maude Abbott lecture describing developments in the then-burgeoning field.

In the 1970s, Dorfman worked closely with Stanford physicians Saul Rosenberg, MD, and Henry Kaplan, MD, to develop a lymphoma classification system that would allow the researchers to accurately determine the effect of their radiation-based treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The physicians’ efforts transformed the once fatal disease into one of the most curable forms of cancer.

Dorfman is remembered by his colleagues as a gentlemanly, compassionate and deliberate man who loved golf — he had multiple holes-in-one — wine and food. “Ron was a gifted diagnostician, teacher and researcher, but those who knew him well were equally impressed by his personal qualities. He was a consummate gentleman and scholar,” said Roger Warnke, MD. Warnke was named the first Ronald F. Dorfman, MBBCh, FRCPath, Professor of Hematopathology in the Department of Pathology in 2002 — an endowed position established by the department to honor Dorfman and his contributions to the field of pathology.

“Kind, thoughtful and generous,” added Kempson, professor of pathology, emeritus, and Dorfman’s colleague of over 40 years. “He was a gentleman in every sense of the word, a very fine human being.”

Dorfman and Kempson were recruited to Stanford by David Korn, MD, who was at that time chair of pathology. He invited the two to establish a new division of surgical pathology, which relies on specially trained pathologists to diagnose disease through the macroscopic and microscopic examination of tissues removed from patients.

“This was a transitional time in the history of the hospital and the field of pathology,” said Warnke. At the time, Stanford had only one surgical pathologist and no training program. “The arrival of Dorfman and Kempson took the surgical pathology training program from nothing to a world-class program in just a few years’ time.”

Dorfman helped to start training programs in surgical pathology, hematopathology, immunopathology and cytopathology.

“There was something almost magical about the Stanford Pathology Department at that time,” said pathologist Mahendra Ranchod, MD, who joined the department as a young man and now has a private practice in Los Gatos, Calif. “Ron Dorfman and Dick Kempson established a great department with very high standards, and together the two, by their actions, imbued the place with a culture: We’ll all do our best, we’ll work together and we’ll do the best we can for our patients.”

Dorfman was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 14, 1923. He entered medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand, but his education was interrupted from 1944 to 1946 by his military service in a South African surgical unit serving with the Allied forces in Egypt and Italy. He received the South African equivalent of a U.S. medical degree, an MBBCh, in 1948 and did his post-graduate training at Johannesburg General Hospital, the Medical School of London and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Edinburgh, becoming a Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologists, designated by the title FRCPath. In 1955 he returned to continue his training as a pathologist at the South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg. From 1959 to 1962 he served as a pathologist and a lecturer in pathology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Despite his successful career, political and moral considerations drove Dorfman and his wife, Zelma, to leave their families and friends in South Africa in 1963 for a new life in the United States. The move was made possible by Lauren Ackerman, MD, one of the world’s leading surgical pathologists, who, after meeting at a conference in Uganda, offered Dorfman a position in his surgical pathology department at Barnes Hospital, which is affiliated with the Washington University School of Medicine.

“We did not want our children to be brought up in a society, which propounded the superiority of the white races over the black peoples of South Africa,” Dorfman wrote in his personal papers. This concern for others remained a hallmark throughout his life.

Outside of the laboratory, Dorfman enjoyed playing golf as part of a long-standing foursome that included noted cardiac surgeon Norman Shumway, MD. In 1988, Shumway replaced Dorfman’s faulty heart valve. “Some months later, when I was back playing golf,” Dorfman recalled in a university publication upon Shumway’s death in 2006, “I outdrove him on one hole. He threatened to open me up and undo the valve!”

Dorfman remained active until his death, playing golf and even coming to the hospital this past May to consult on a particularly difficult case of the disease that bears his name, Rosai-Dorfman disease. The disease is characterized by benign, abnormal proliferation of a type of immune cells in the lymph nodes, often in the neck.

Dorfman is survived by his wife, Zelma of Palo Alto; daughters Erica Dorfman of Seattle, Annie Nieves of Clovis, Calif., and Carol Dorfman of Guilford, Conn.; brother Stanley Dorfman of Los Angeles; and two grandsons.

The family suggests any donations in Dorfman’s memory be made to “Médecins Sans Frontières” (Doctors Without Borders), which can be reached at

A memorial service for family and friends will be held at Channing House, in Palo Alto on July 14 from 3-5 p.m. The Stanford Department of Pathology will be arranging an additional memorial service in his honor in the fall.

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