John “Jack” Harris Saiki, MD, Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico Department of Medicine, Hematology/Oncology Division, lived the history of modern day oncology with a career spanning 44 years. In the early days of his career, with the support of a grant from the federally funded New Mexico Regional Medical Program, Dr. Saiki developed a leukemia-lymphoma treatment program at a time when no formal medical oncology program existed in New Mexico. Dr. Saiki died peacefully on August 8, 2014, at his home in New Mexico surrounded by his loving family.
Education and Early Career
Born on December 31, 1936 in Grand Forks, North Dakota to Lydia Elizabeth Kuoppala and Arthur Kazu Saiki, MD, Dr. Saiki spent most of his childhood in Grand Forks and 3 formative years in Kauai, Hawaii. Dr. Saiki received his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal, Canada in 1961. It was there that he met his future wife, Julie Singleton. Dr. Saiki served 2 years with the United States Public Health Service in Fort Defiance, Arizona. He completed his residency and fellowship training in medicine and hematology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and his oncology training at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Saiki joined the faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in 1970.
Dr. Saiki was subsequently awarded funding from the National Institutes of Health in support of his membership in SWOG, which ushered in cancer clinical trials and new cancer treatments for New Mexicans. In 1973, Dr. Saiki received Board certification in medical oncology, the year the subspecialty of medical oncology was first created.
Dr. Saiki served in various capacities while on the faculty, including Clinical Director of the University of New Mexico Cancer Center and Principal Investigator for the Southwest Oncology Group. In addition, Dr. Saiki served on the Board of Trustees for Blood Systems for 29 years and was Medical Director of the Presbyterian Hospice Program.
Brilliant, Humble, and Kind
Dr. Saiki was the recipient of numerous awards for teaching and service, including the Laureate Award by the New Mexico Chapter of the American College of Physicians and nine Khatali Awards, an honor bestowed by each graduating class of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in recognition of teaching excellence. Throughout his career, Dr. Saiki loved teaching but patient care was foremost in his heart. Dr. Saiki was beloved for his humility, compassion, integrity, and dedication.
Dr. Saiki and his wife of 52 years, Julie, shared a mutual love of the Southwest, hiking, birding, identifying wildflowers, and enjoying the tranquility of the Taos mountains. He was deeply loved and admired by his three children. He encouraged them to carve out their own unique paths and, importantly, to appreciate the journey. He was a beloved granddad. With his playful spirit and love of teaching, he spent endless hours with his grandchildren on projects fostering their love of science and nature. Dr. Saiki’s curiosity and appreciation of life included photography, tennis, geology, woodworking, taking up the banjo at age 40, and driving his ’66 Volvo. His gift for storytelling, endearing sense of humor, and gentle nature remained ever-present to the end.
A celebration of Dr. Saiki’s life was held earlier this month at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center. ■