Thomas Stamey, expert on prostate cancer and PSA test, dies at 87

The founding chair of Stanford’s Department of Urology was an investigator for the controversial PSA blood test for prostate cancer, and used basic research in urology and surgery to help patients.

- By Jennie Dusheck

Thomas Stamey

Thomas A. Stamey, MD, a professor emeritus of urology at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a noted leader in the study and treatment of prostate cancer, died of Alzheimer’s disease Sept. 4 at his home in Portola Valley, California. He was 87.

At Stanford, Stamey helped lay the groundwork for the now-controversial PSA blood test for prostate cancer and helped transform urology and surgery from purely clinical fields to research fields. He made major contributions to four areas of medicine: renal hypertension, urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence and prostate cancer. In 1989, he became the first urologist ever elected to the Institute of Medicine. He was also named an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh.

“Tom Stamey was the founding father of the Stanford Department of Urology and led it for more than 25 years. He was truly one of the giants in academic urology, with his biggest impact in the area of prostate cancer,” said Eila Skinner, MD, chair of urology and the Thomas A. Stamey Research Professor in Urology at the medical school. “His research collaborations with John McNeal formed the basis of much of what we know about prostate cancer today. He trained over 100 residents and fellows, many of whom went on to be leaders in urology in their own right. His influence on the department will go on for many years to come, and I feel privileged to have known him.”

‘A strongly knit department’

Born in North Carolina in 1928, Stamey graduated from Vanderbilt University and went on to earn a medical degree in 1952 from Johns Hopkins University, where he also did his internship and a residency. After serving as a urological consultant for the U.S. Army in the United Kingdom, he joined the faculty of Johns Hopkins in 1958. In 1961, he came west to Stanford’s medical school as associate professor of surgery and chair of the Division of Urology. In 1990, he was appointed founding chair of the newly created Department of Urology and worked to develop it into one of the top programs in the nation.

Stamey’s wife, Kathryn, noted that her husband worked with the late Duncan Govan to create the department. Govan, MD, PhD, a professor emeritus of urology, died in 2007. “They built the department from scratch, and it became, at its high point, the most sought-after urology residency in the country,” Kathryn Stamey said. “It was a very strong, family-oriented department. We had lots of parties, and everybody came with their children. It became a strongly knit department and very successful.”

He was a giant in the field.

Stamey authored or co-authored more than 225 scientific papers, four books, 30 textbook chapters and seven monographs. Among many other awards, he received the Hugh Hampton Young Award (1972) and the Ramon Guiteras Award (1995) from the American Urological Association and the Valentine Award (1991) from the New York Academy of Medicine.

“He was a giant in the field. His most spectacular achievement at Stanford was making research for surgeons an important part of an academic career, which was not true of departments in many other parts of the country,” said Linda Shortliffe, MD, professor of pediatric urology.

Shortliffe, who did her 1977-81 residency with Stamey, said, “People talk about translational medicine now, but he was doing it back then.” That research focus was the reason, she said, he was the first urologist and one of the first surgeons to be elected to the Institute of Medicine. “Tom instituted one year of a medical residency to be a laboratory year, where residents worked on research,” Kathryn Stamey said.

An authoritative voice

Shortliffe has vivid memories of working with Stamey and, in particular, of his authoritative voice. She said that many of Stamey’s former residents wrote to her in response to news of his death, reporting, “I still hear his voice.”

“He had a distinct North Carolina accent, which was not that common on the West Coast,” she said. “It was like hearing your father’s voice all the time, even though we were not that much younger than he was. It was a voice you could hear in your sleep.” Even today, she said, many of his former surgical residents say they hear his voice while working in the operating room.

Many of the residents Stamey trained went on to become departmental chairs around the country, said Kathryn Stamey.

Stamey was also one of the first to show the value of the PSA test for prostate cancer, but then, ironically, his was also a voluble voice against the test’s use to justify unnecessary prostate surgery. In the late 1980s, he pioneered the development of the prostate specific antigen, or PSA, blood test for prostate, which allowed physicians to estimate the risk that a male patient had prostate cancer.

Our job now is to stop removing every man’s prostate who has prostate cancer.

PSA levels correspond to the size of the prostate. As men age, it’s common for the prostate to become larger, leading to higher levels of PSA in the blood. When surgeons biopsied the prostates of men with high PSA levels, they frequently found cancer. However, what was not obvious at the time was that both an enlarged prostate and small prostate cancers are common among all men and usually not lethal. That is, most men with a prostate cancer will die of something else, and treating the prostate cancer can needlessly lead to a much-reduced quality of life. To Stamey’s credit, he recognized this, and in 2004 published a study showing that the PSA test predicted the size of the patient’s prostate, but not the severity of cancer.

As Stamey said at the time, “Our job now is to stop removing every man’s prostate who has prostate cancer. We originally thought we were doing the right thing, but we are now figuring out how we went wrong. Some men need prostate treatment but certainly not all of them.” The 2004 paper was one the last papers he wrote, Kathryn Stamey said.

But that kind of strong language was typical of Stamey, Shortliffe said. “There was never any question about where he stood.”

“He was a compassionate, kind gentleman,” his wife added. “He thought his patients were his heroes, and he loved medicine. He loved learning, he loved everything about his work. He said he never worked a day in his life. He was just a very kind and loving man.”

In addition to his work at Stanford, he loved fly-fishing, music and travel, she said.

In addition to his wife, Stamey is survived by his five children — Frederick Stamey, Charline Stamey, Alex Stamey, Theron Cooper and Allison Stamey — and grandchildren Suzi Quist, George Quist, Heather Magrin, Robin Magrin and Alexis Stamey.

A service for Stamey will be held at noon Sept. 12 at the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, 1105 Valparaiso Ave., Menlo Park, California, 94025.

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