Remembering Dr. Wolfgang K. Joklik

The Duke Community was saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Wolfgang K. Joklik earlier this month. As both Chair of the Duke Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and co-founder of the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, he had a profound impact on Duke Health. 

There have been several well-written tributes to Dr. Joklik and his legacy in the past couple of weeks, so rather than attempt to write another, we thought that we would share some of his own words. We conducted an oral history interview with Dr. Joklik in 2007 that hopefully provides some insight on the passion that guided much of his work.

When describing his dedication to Duke and the Cancer Center, Dr. Joklik shared the following:

“In 1968 I was recruited to become Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Duke, at Duke Medical Center. And I went, so since 1968 I’ve been at Duke. When I came to Duke the Department consisted of six faculty members; when I stepped down in 1993 there were thirty-four. In 1985, the National Research Council carried out a survey, as they do every five or ten years, to evaluate Departments in Medical Schools; and my Department of Microbiology and Immunology, together with two others, was declared to be one of the top three Medical School Microbiology and Immunology Departments in the country. So we had a very high reputation... In 1971, President [Richard] Nixon, in his State of the Union message, declared a War on Cancer. The National Cancer Institute set up a Special Virus Cancer Program that involved establishing Comprehensive Cancer Centers throughout the nation. And I thought—by the way, I should mention that I married, in Australia, in 1955, Judith, who was born in Perth, Western Australia. And we had two children, a son, Richard, and a daughter, Vivien, who were born in 1957 and 1959, respectively. And Judith, I’m afraid, developed cancer, breast cancer, in 1967, and so in 1968, when she came to Duke she already knew that she had breast cancer, and she was under the care of outstanding physicians at Duke. But she succumbed to the cancer in 1975, seven or eight years after its first detection, which was slightly longer than average, but, on the other hand, there was nothing one could do. She was on chemotherapy, of course, but she died in 1975. And because my wife had breast cancer, and I was a virologist and techniques had just been developed for really being able to observe the first stages of cancer formation, I thought that Duke should have—should be one of the first medical schools to have a Comprehensive Cancer Center. And I called a Faculty Meeting and talked to the other Chairmen, and there was considerable enthusiasm for applying for the designation of a Comprehensive Cancer Center at Duke. And Dr. [William] Anlyan and I went to see President [Terry] Sanford, and he was enthusiastic, and so we applied for being awarded and obtained a Comprehensive Cancer Center. We built two buildings for that: one for basic cancer research and the other one for clinical cancer research. One is the Jones Building and the other is the Morris Building. And then we appointed Dr. [William] Shingleton to be the first Director of the Cancer Center, and the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center has always been in the very top flight of Cancer Centers since then, because we have had extremely good Directors of the Cancer Center.”

Dr. Joklik will be greatly missed. 

To learn more about Dr. Joklik’s life and legacy, his professional papers and oral history interview are housed at Duke University Medical Center Archives.