Dr. Robert J. Kurman was born and raised in New York. He obtained his B.A. degree from Queens College and his M.D. degree from Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, New York. An internship in medicine and pathology at Beth Israel Hospital, New York was followed by residency training in pathology at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, Children’s Hospital and Boston Hospital for Women, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He subsequently began residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at the Boston Hospital for Women, which was interrupted by military service at the AFIP where he served as Assistant Chief of the Department of Gynecology and Breast Pathology. He then resumed his training in gynecology at LA County Hospital/University of Southern California, returning to Washington, DC to take a position at Georgetown University School of Medicine, where he rose to the rank of Professor of Pathology and Obstetrics and Gynecology. In 1989 Dr. Kurman joined the faculty of the Departments of Gynecology & Obstetrics and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins Hospital as the Richard W. TeLinde Distinguished Professor of Gynecologic Pathology and Director of Gynecologic Pathology. In 2003 he was appointed Professor in the Department of Oncology.
Dr. Kurman’s early research focused on germ cell tumors of the ovary, gestational trophoblastic disease, endometrial hyperplasia and carcinoma, the relationship of human papillomavirus (HPV) to cervical neoplasia, and the application of immunohistochemical techniques to characterize gynecologic lesions. Many of these efforts have continued over the years, leading to major contributions in the diagnosis and classification of endometrial hyperplasia (WHO classification system), the identification of the precursor lesion of invasive serous carcinoma (endometrial intraepithelial carcinoma), the characterization of intermediate trophoblastic lesions (placental site and epithelioid trophoblastic tumors), and the reporting of HPV-related cervical lesions (“The Bethesda System for Reporting Cervical/Vaginal Cytologic Diagnoses”).
Dr. Kurman’s subsequent research efforts have concentrated on ovarian epithelial tumors. By collaborating not only with other pathologists but also with molecular biologists and epidemiologists, he has demonstrated the value of a multimodal approach to ovarian cancer research. His vision has led to the proposal of new disease models, which synthesize clinical observations with pathobiological mechanisms and validate conceptual hypotheses with molecular data, thereby bringing new insights to the field. Studies on mucinous tumors have provided refined diagnostic criteria enabling better distinction of primary ovarian mucinous tumors from metastases and establishing that pseudomyxoma peritonei in women is virtually never ovarian in origin. Subsequent studies on serous tumors led to numerous insights into the relationship of “borderline” serous tumors to invasive serous carcinomas. These include recognition of a non-invasive carcinomatous form of serous tumor designated low-grade (micropapillary) serous carcinoma, which explains the subset of borderline serous tumors with adverse behavior, and elucidation of their molecular pathogenesis, establishing that low- and high-grade serous carcinomas develop along different pathways. These findings led to the proposal of a dualistic model of ovarian serous carcinogenesis. This was subsequently expanded to include the other types of ovarian carcinomas, with type I carcinomas representing low-grade carcinomas, which have a relationship to precursor lesions such as borderline tumors and endometriosis, and type II carcinomas representing high-grade carcinomas, which have a distinct pathogenesis and clinical behavior. In light of recent studies implicating a precursor lesion in the fallopian tube (“serous tubal intraepithelial carcinoma”) as the origin of many so-called “ovarian” high-grade serous carcinomas, this model of ovarian carcinogenesis has been provocatively expanded to postulate that both low- and high-grade serous carcinomas arise from the fallopian tube proper or tubal epithelium that has been incorporated into the ovary. This novel concept has dramatically changed our thinking on this subject, which has important implications for ovarian cancer screening and prevention.
Dr. Kurman’s influence extends well beyond these research efforts. He has recruited and mentored pathologists and researchers who have become distinguished gynecologic pathologists in their own right, some of whom work with him at Johns Hopkins and others who have gone to other institutions to direct gynecologic pathology services. He has trained numerous fellows who are scattered across the country and abroad in a variety of academic and clinical practice settings. Many pathologists know him as an author and editor through his significant educational publications, including Blaustein’s Pathology of the Female Genital Tract, Diagnosis of Endometrial Biopsies and Curettings—A Practical Approach, the AFIP fascicles on Tumors of the Cervix, Vagina, and Vulva (3rd and 4th series) and Tumors of the Uterine Corpus and Gestational Trophoblastic Disease (3rd series). In addition, pathologists worldwide know him through his dynamic lectures. He has contributed to the advancement of the field through his leadership in professional societies, participation in international committees, and membership on editorial boards of numerous journals. As one colleague has observed, “like a fine wine, Dr. Kurman has only improved with age, even though he himself resists signs of aging.” Given that Dr. Kurman’s efforts have been instrumental in modernizing gynecologic pathology through his understanding of the value of combining molecular investigations with traditional morphologic assessment, it would be most accurate to say that as a pathologist he is a fine blend.
M. Ronnett, M.D.
Ie-Ming Shih, M.D., Ph.D.