Dr. Peter Mozden, teacher at BU led cancer research

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / January 7, 2011

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When Dr. Peter J. Mozden began teaching at Boston University’s School of Medicine in the early 1960s, he realized that treating cancer required a comprehensive approach that was both specific and general. He pushed for surgical oncology to be its own subspecialty and wanted multidisciplinary training for aspiring surgical and medical oncologists.

Dr. Mozden “was a visionary physician,’’ Dr. Michael D. Stone, chief of the surgical oncology and endocrine surgery section at Boston Medical Center, said in a statement.

“Cancer education was a huge part of what he stood for,’’ said Stone, who is also a surgery professor at BU’s medical school. “. . . A very accomplished surgeon, he trained dozens of medical oncologists around the region. Even in his retirement, he would come each year to the lectures held here in his honor and would have the honor of asking the first question to the speaker at the conclusion of the presentation. His questions always were incredibly insightful, intelligent, and provocative.’’

Dr. Mozden, whose affiliation with BU dates to 1949, when he began his studies at the medical school, died Tuesday in Boston Medical Center, which in various forms had been his professional home for decades. He was 86 and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer in October, when he was being treated for heart and kidney failure.

In the Newton house he bought with his wife in 1960, Dr. Mozden would return from work some evenings, make popcorn for his two daughters, and rise at midnight after a short nap to do paperwork until 4 a.m.

At home, he also traveled where curiosity led him in literature and music, sometimes down paths that might surprise those who knew him professionally.

Martha S. Mozden of Sauquoit, N.Y., said her father’s musical tastes tended toward classical and jazz, but after Michael Jackson’s “Thriller’’ came out in 1982, “he said, ‘I’ve got to have that; it’s the biggest selling album in history.’ He was kind of a renaissance man and had very broad tastes.’’

His curiosity and willingness to sample a variety of disciplines made him a good teacher, too.

Dr. Peter J. Deckers, dean emeritus and professor of surgery at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said in a statement that Dr. Mozden “was the ultimate role model and mentor, a medical professional and physician in every best sense of the words, who made multidisciplinary care and education in oncology the expected standard for his students, residents, and fellows long before such care was the norm, or even fashionable.’’

And Dr. Maureen T. Kavanah, a surgical oncologist at Boston University Medical Center who trained under Dr. Mozden, said in a statement that he “was one of the most influential leaders in America in the care of the patient with cancer.’’

“He was a remarkable man, a superb surgeon, an engaging teacher, an ardent researcher and one of the best in compassionately taking the time to listen to the patient,’’ she said.

Born in Woronoco, in Westfield, Dr. Mozden was one of 10 children, grew up in farming communities in Central Massachusetts, and graduated from Palmer High School.

He went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst and graduated in 1949, interrupting his studies to join the US Army during World War II. The Army sent him briefly to the University of Wisconsin to study Russian, and he used those skills near the end of the war as a liaison between US and Soviet troops.

A staff sergeant, he served in combat during the Battle of the Bulge, received a Purple Heart, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

He married Genevieve Wilczek, his high school sweetheart, in 1947. She died in 2008.

Dr. Mozden graduated from BU’s medical school in 1953 and, after postgraduate studies, returned at the beginning of the 1960s to stay until he became a professor emeritus in 1989.

In 1964, he established what was, according to Boston Medical Center, the first surgical oncology section in the nation. He also helped create the first regional oncology program, a network that included 24 hospitals across New England.

In his 1971 State of the Union address, President Nixon said cancer research would be a priority. Among his many professional affiliations, Dr. Mozden was one of the top leaders of the American Association for Cancer Education that year. He served as a physician adviser to Nixon, who in December 1971 signed the National Cancer Act to launch the “war on cancer.’’

During the 1970s, Dr. Mozden took part in “Joan Robinson: One Woman’s Story,’’ a documentary about one of his patients that PBS broadcast in 1980.

When Dr. Mozden retired in 1989, the BU School of Medicine established the Peter J. Mozden Visiting Professorship.

Dr. James Becker, surgery chairman and surgeon in chief at Boston Medical Center, said in a statement that Dr. Mozden “was the consummate academic surgeon’’ and a “visionary leader, both in establishing one of the first surgical oncology fellowship programs in the country and later as the chairman of the department of surgery.’’

“Even after his retirement, he remained engaged and loyal to Boston University School of Medicine, Boston Medical Center, and the department of surgery,’’ said Becker.

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Mozden leaves another daughter, Sandra Cheney of Carmel, Maine; three sisters, Genevieve Lopata of Three Rivers, Rose Tyburski of Thorndike, and Irene of West Springfield; and four grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow in Mary Immaculate of Lourdes Church in Newton. Burial will be in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Needham.

Bryan Marquard can be reached at