Cover photo for Nancy Hall Colburn Farrell's Obituary
Nancy Hall Colburn Farrell Profile Photo

Nancy Hall Colburn Farrell

May 15, 1941 — March 16, 2020

Whether it was on a mountainside, in the lab, at the piano bench, or with loved ones at home, Nancy lived her life with gusto.

Born and raised in Newark, Delaware, she was the elder daughter of Robert and Alice Hall. As a teen, she could be found playing the piano with such intensity and stamina that she needed to open the windows to cool down, walking the neighborhood with her backpack to get in shape for an upcoming Girl Scout trip, or organizing family and school activities. She was voted most likely to succeed, which she went on to do.

Nancy went to college at her beloved Swarthmore, and received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin, in 1967. “It was really exciting in the mid-60s to be studying molecular biology. Everything was so new. Who could imagine such exciting discoveries about how genetic information got communicated and transmitted?” she said.

She taught for seven years at universities before beginning her 36-year long career at the National Cancer Institute. She considers her greatest accomplishments to be the discovery and validation of two new molecular targets for cancer prevention: tumor-suppressing translation inhibitor Pdcd4 and oncogenic transcription factor AP-1. At the time of her retirement, she said “we discovered Pdcd4 using a cell culture model that I had generated, which was one-of-a-kind—it’s the only one in the world that’s ever existed—that allows you to study tumor promoter–induced transformation.” She explained that in a cell culture model, one cell line is genetically sensitive and the other is genetically resistant. “If you find out what’s happening in the sensitive line that’s not happening in the resistant line, it’s likely to be an oncogene. If you find out what’s happening in the resistant line that’s not happening in the sensitive line, it’s likely to be a tumor suppressor.”

Not only did she influence the field of cancer prevention, but also the people she collaborated with and mentored. In the words of one member of her lab, her mentees learned “not only how to be a scientist, but also to be a human being.” She was a giving leader and had an integrity, honesty, and caring that was rare. She was deeply respected and loved by so many.

As a mother, she taught us to follow our passions, love each other, help people, and seek out nature and family for rejuvenation. She embraced challenge—even sought it out, and saw unfamiliar experiences as adventures. With her “can-do” attitude, she went for it, and showed us how to do the same. Our mom believed in us, never doubting that we could realize our highest aspirations. She was an optimist and saw the good in people and in life. She never met a food she didn’t like, and she tried a lot. She was an amazing listener, always curious to hear what we were thinking about, learning, and questioning. As one granddaughter said, “No matter what I wanted to tell her, Grandma Nancy always took the time to listen, and she always seemed interested in what I had to say.” She was our unflagging cheering section--figuratively and literally--coming to our soccer games, even after a long day at work, grabbing a hotdog and rooting for us with an enthusiastic voice that we could always pick out from the field. Her love for the outdoors was contagious, especially for the mountains. She taught us the exhilaration of reaching a rugged peak on our own leg power, the rush of skiing through powdery moguls, and the peaceful feeling of sleeping under the stars.

With Jack, her husband of 27 years, Nancy found love, companionship, shared spiritual interests, travel adventures, and more. She supported his writing and he supported her piano-playing; they dove into each other’s passions--Jack picking up skiing and trail running, and Nancy discovering poetry and indigenous art. They travelled over much of the world, including many trips to Mexico and South America, and a single visit each to Cuba and Costa Rica. Jack loved Nancy’s flexibility when they traveled, which was best illustrated on a trip to Spain.

In Jack’s words, “On New Year’s, at the turn of the century, I had made all the arrangements for our travels to Spain, but I made a great mistake by not arranging lodging ahead of time. I had not realized that New Year’s was a major celebration event in Spain and the turn of the century amplified it. Since the Spanish do not like to drive after drinking, they stay at a hotel. I could not find a room for the night in Madrid or any of the nearby towns. I told Nancy, ‘We may have to sleep in the car tonight,’ and Nancy simply said, ‘Okay.’ No complaints about my mistake. Fortunately, the man we rented the car from went to work on his phone, making many calls. Finally he found a nice room for us about an hour south of Madrid in the town of Almargro in the La Mancha area, where Cervantes set the Don Quixote story. We had a great time seeing the sights of the story and exploring caves with ancient paintings. Later when things cooled down in Madrid, we stayed there and saw the fabulous art in that city. I really appreciated Nancy’s flexibility and positive attitude.”

Nancy leaves behind her husband, Jack, her sister, Penny, daughters Carolyn and Christy, and their husbands Klaus and Dan, and grandchildren Mikayla, Jasmine, and Zadie. We are grateful to have had Nancy as our mom, wife, sister, and grandma--she was a gift to all of us.

There will be a celebration of life at some point in the future when we can all gather in one place. The family asks for any donations to go to the American Association for Cancer Research or The Sierra Club.
To order memorial trees or send flowers to the family in memory of Nancy Hall Colburn Farrell, please visit our flower store.

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