Dr. Isaac Craig Henderson, 81, of San Francisco, California, and Nantucket, Massachusetts, passed away Monday, December 26, 2022, after a long illness, surrounded by family at his San Francisco home.
Born on August 10, 1941, on a farm near Paullina, Iowa, Craig was the fifth, and youngest, child of Isaac and Ora (Tjossem) Henderson. His earliest years were spent on the family’s dairy farm nestled within a Quaker community in O’Brien County (Iowa). Although Craig sometimes reflected that these were lonely years for him, as his siblings were considerably older and far from home, he found solace in his parents’ love for music, their intellectual discussions, and the close relationships he formed with the elderly people in his life. Isaac and Ora broke with tradition in their conservative Quaker community when they fully embraced music in their home. Not only were they among the earliest members of their community to own a piano, but they were devoted listeners to the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. Craig himself studied the piano, clarinet, oboe, and organ. Among his fondest childhood memories were participating in the middle school band and being an organist for local churches. In 1955, his parents moved east to Marshalltown, Iowa, where they lived in, and ran, a nursing home. Craig graduated from Marshalltown High School in 1959.
A new world opened for Craig when he arrived at Grinnell College (Iowa) that fall. For the first time in his life, he felt surrounded by peers who shared his interests and were willing to express their intellectual curiosity. Craig initially dreamed of becoming a musician, yet a music teacher he much respected advised him to become a doctor instead. He had considered a career in medicine even prior to college and, following the teacher’s advice, pursued a double major in chemistry and history, while satisfying his appetite for music by serving as the college organist.
Craig’s self-confidence grew stronger during his years at Grinnell. Life-long friendships were formed, and it was here he found the freedom to develop his individuality and to consider what kind of contribution he wanted to make to society. He graduated in 1963 with a Fulbright Fellowship and an offer to attend medical school at Columbia University.
The Fulbright took Craig to India and introduced him to the pleasures of international travel and the richness of other cultures. While working as an English language teacher in Gujarat and a research scholar in Rajasthan, Craig delved into Hindustani, cultivated a taste for Indian cuisine, studied Eastern religions and philosophy, and attempted to capture, with his first camera, the stunningly beautiful—yet impoverished—life he witnessed in urban and rural India. Living in a foreign country as a minority greatly deepened his understanding of the human experience.
After two years abroad, Craig returned to the United States in 1965, settling in New York City to begin medical school at Columbia. Shortly after arriving in New York, he reconnected with an old friend from Marshalltown: Mary Turner. Craig had quietly been enamored with Mary since their high-school days. She had moved to New York in 1961 to attend the Columbia School of Nursing and was well on her way to a career in public health when Craig arrived. A mutual friend, Gary Thurston, suggested the two have dinner together; and within a year, on June 11, 1966, Craig and Mary were united in a beautiful, companionate marriage that would last 56 years and prove a model of friendship, love, and forbearance for their children, grandchildren, and many friends. They began their family in 1971 when they welcomed a son, Isaac. A daughter, Amy, joined them in 1972. With Mary by his side, Craig was able to realize a life that balanced medicine with family, music with patronage, and independence with community. Mary was the light of Craig’s life, always ready to help him find the humor and joy in their shared adventures.
After graduating from Columbia in 1970, Craig built a prominent career as an expert and leader in breast cancer research. Following an internship and residency in New York, he served for two years in the U.S. Public Health Service as a research associate at the National Institutes of Health before completing his training at Harvard Medical School’s Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
Craig continued on the Harvard faculty from 1975 to 1992, rising from instructor to associate professor, and thrived as the founder and director of the Breast Evaluation Center, one of the first multidisciplinary programs of this type. In 1992, Craig joined the faculty at the University of California San Francisco as a full professor and served as the deputy director of the San Francisco Cancer Center in its earliest stages before moving onto entrepreneurial roles in the pharmaceutical industry. Between 1995 and 2008, Craig was variously chief executive officer of Sequus Pharmaceuticals Inc., board member of Alza Corporation, founder and chief executive officer of Access Oncology, Inc., and president of Keryx Biopharmaceuticals Inc.
His research accomplishments are significant. Craig was a principal investigator on the initial Phase II study of Herceptin, one of the first targeted breast cancer therapies. He was an early and lone voice urging evaluation of high-dose chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants for breast cancer patients. The studies he encouraged demonstrated that this therapy had limited to no value for any stage of breast cancer. Craig was also the principal investigator of the national study establishing the benefits of paclitaxel in early breast cancer treatment and he directed the development of Doxil, the first FDA-approved liposomal drug for cancer. Craig’s ground-breaking contribution to the field is reflected in more than 300 publications.
In his later years, Craig remained active in medicine. He continued as an adjunct professor at UCSF, teaching courses on biology and breast cancer; a physician at the Breast Cancer Center at the UCSF/Mount Zion Breast Care Center; and a consultant physician to three different online medical platforms. He also served as a member of the Medical Advisory Panel (from 1991) and the Medicare Advisory Panel (from 1997) for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association and on multiple journal editorial boards.
Outside of his profession, Craig devoted a considerable amount of time to volunteer work and philanthropy. He was a trustee for Grinnell College (2000-2016), the Nantucket Music Center, and the American Friends of the Salzberg Easter Festival (2006-2010). Craig also dedicated over twenty years to the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Opera (2000-2022).
Craig’s generosity was further reflected in the way he and Mary opened their home to guests and young artists. In the first year of their marriage, they hosted a wassail party in their small New York City apartment and invited over one hundred guests. Evening dinner parties progressively turned to hosting relatives for long stays at their homes in Falls Church, Virginia, and Winchester, Massachusetts. When their children finally established residences of their own, they began offering those extra bedrooms to young people in need of a place to stay in San Francisco. Friends of their children (and the children of their friends), colleagues, college students, opera singers, and musicians soon discovered Craig and Mary’s hospitality. “Hotel Henderson” was rarely empty. That warm welcome in turn created an energy within their home—one that thrived on inter-generational interactions, lively conversation, shared learning, laughter, and the most beautiful music and singing. In these domestic moments, Craig and Mary proved themselves not only as friend and mentor to a host of young people but also, at times, surrogate parents. Together, they created a space for both joy and contemplation.
Although Craig will be remembered by friends for his twin passions of medicine and music, his intense interest in all things human was manifested in so many other aspects of his life. He relished connecting with others through conversation, good food, and good wine. He had little patience for small talk. He traveled the world with Mary and his family to experience different cultures, histories, and world views. He loved to see shows on Broadway, watch Jeopardy! on TV, and throw the ball for his dog. He learned to share his son’s excitement for the Red Sox (and later teased him by rooting for the Warriors). He never tired of visiting museums with his daughter. He wanted people to know he paid for medical school by working as a taxi driver in New York City. He loved to sail, perhaps as much as he loved listening to Wagner. He was a political junkie who read the newspaper every single day of his life. He made a great gin martini.
As Craig was nearing the final chapter of his life, he spoke often about his children and his grandchildren as his greatest accomplishments. He viewed his role as father as among his most important. He advocated giving children the freedom to experience the world, find and pursue their own passions, and travel far and wide (literally and figuratively). He liked to say home should be the safe harbor you offer your child when they need you the most (or are finally ready to hear the advice you resisted offering unsolicited). He enjoyed his children’s and his grandchildren’s company. He loved them unconditionally.
A few years ago, Craig was asked during an interview for the CancerNetwork in what ways opera, or music in general, inspired him as a physician. His response is telling about how he deeply benefitted from the intersection of art and science throughout his life and career:
“One of the things that differentiates a physician from other scientists is the human dimension. It’s not that other scientists are not interested in human biology or the human implications of their work, but rather that this dimension is the core of what a physician does.
“I believe that the arts are very important in expressing those unique qualities that define us as human and help us maintain our perspective. For many years I taught ‘Intro to Medicine’ at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. One of my sessions was on truth-telling, but my interest was more on exploring with the students how a physician knows the truth. I believe there needs to be a tension or war between the different parts of a physician’s brain. One is the scientific part, which processes data and should be objective and extremely rigorous, and the other half is the part that understands what it is like to have these diseases, suffer them, and understand the feelings and reactions of the human being. That is the “fuzzy” part, but that is the part that is augmented by the arts, and, I find, augmented by music in general and, for me, opera in particular.
“Physicians are scientists with an intense interest in all things human, including emotions, their patients’ subjective responses to treatment, and the soft and fuzzy elements that are so important in distinguishing us from the rest of living creatures. The arts contribute importantly to these elements of the physician persona.”
Those left to cherish Craig’s memory include his beloved wife, Mary Henderson; his children, Isaac Craig Henderson, III (Christina Burns) of New York, N.Y. and Amy Hudson Henderson (John Fuson) of Washington, D.C.; grandchildren Harold Isaac Hudson Fuson, Ella Virginia Henderson Fuson, Jade Mary Henderson, and Miles Chen Henderson; and nine nieces and nephews, extended family members and friends. He will be missed dearly.
Craig was preceded in death by his parents, Isaac and Ora; his sisters, M. Lucille Kahl and Ruth Pingrey; and his brother, Reverend Verne Henderson.
The family plans to hold a private service in Iowa later this year. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Craig’s memory to support the Adler programs at San Francisco Opera Association, Attn: Development, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco CA 94102, or call 415-565-3212.