By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
Born into a family of educators, Lee Clark loved history. He was a well-versed student who could recite medical milestones (dates included) on a moment’s notice. Clark was action-oriented, and making history was always more appealing to him than reading it. He did both.
His father, Lee Clark Sr., a noted educator, instilled in his son an appreciation for the past during dinnertime conversations and in letters home. At the age of 16, Lee Clark received one such letter from his father, who was visiting Huntsville, Texas. Clark Sr. wanted Clark Jr. to know all about the history of the town. He wrote young Lee a two-page letter, dated June 11, 1923, on Sam Houston State Teachers College letterhead, with a note next to the date indicating “7 p.m.” The natural-born teacher provided his son a textbook account of the town’s history in beautifully scripted prose:
“I have just returned from a walk alone. How I wish you could have been with me. I went around the courthouse square, on out by the grim walls of the penitentiary. ... This town is very old for a Texas town. Near the business part of town can still be found an old spring, where two brothers established a trading post with the Indians. … Sam Houston died here and is buried here. The man whose house I am rooming with knew Sam Houston…[and] is one of four survivors of those who wrote the present Constitution of Texas.”
Clark looked to the future with a deep appreciation of the past. He often acknowledged a well-known phrase Sir Isaac Newton wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Clark first saw cancer cells as an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina. Years later, as cancer took a front seat as a career interest, he would recall what a turning point that was as he watched with fascination his professor presented a scratchy, black-and-white time-lapse film. It was not to today’s standards, but there on the screen were living cancer cells dividing before his eyes — replicating and growing out of control. Surely, Clark was mesmerized and leaned a bit forward in his seat that day. Cancer was a dreaded disease shrouded in mystery, its history tracing back centuries, and Clark would learn every detail he could absorb.
The Texas Medical Center (TMC) houses box after box of his archived documents, ranging from family mementos to college notes, blueprints, early organizational charts for the new cancer hospital, awards and much more. Here is a lifetime of saved letters and papers that form the corpus of the man who is no longer here. Wisely, many of these documents have been placed on microfilm and safely preserved in the hospital’s archives.
But in the TMC archives are the originals just as they left his hand — row upon row of boxes, hundreds of boxes, all carefully organized, cataloged and ready to speak to anyone who has the time and the curiosity. Clark’s love of cancer history comes to life in a single document — an April 8, 1980, draft outline of cancer-related milestones (citations included) for a lecture that would have taken an hour or more, with a slide for each as he regaled the details of each moment in time. Here’s a shorter version of highlights Clark felt worthy of close attention. Additional notes have been added to Clark’s summary in brackets.
1634 One of the earliest uses of the illustration of the crab to symbolize cancer appeared in a textbook of surgery published in 1634.
Mid-1700s First cancer hospital opened in Rheims, France, by Bishop Jean Godinot. Closed 1778 because of public fear that cancer might be contagious.
1775 Prominent English surgeon Percivall Pott wrote on the subject of cancer of the scrotum in chimney sweeps, which he attributed to long exposure and intimate contact with soot. This was the first clear description of an occupational cancer.
1809 Massachusetts General Hospital accepted cancer patients, led by Dr. John Collins Warren.
1837 Johannes Müller, [a German physiologist and comparative anatomist], looked at cancers through an achromatic microscope and ushered in the histologic period of oncology.
1846 Introduction of anesthesia, Oct. 16, 1846, with the use of ether by William Thomas Green Morton.
1851 The Free Cancer Hospital established in London by William Marsden [now known as the Royal Marsden Hospital located on Fulton Road in Chelsia].
1867 Antiseptic techniques in surgery reported by English surgeon Lord Joseph Lister; he had successfully applied the discoveries of French chemist Louis Pasteur.
1800s In the 19th century, a famous German scientist, Virchow, taught that chronic irritation was a cause of cancer.
1877 Transplantation of tumors from one animal to another first performed successfully in dogs, by a Russian veterinarian.
1884 From Dr. Sims’ efforts against cancer arose the New York Cancer Hospital, established in 1884 as the first hospital in the U.S. to be devoted entirely to cancer. [The hospital was the site of many medical innovations and by 1899 changed names to General Memorial Hospital for the Treatment of Cancer and Allied Diseases, eventually moving to its current location on the east side of Manhattan and known today as Memorial Sloan-Kettering.]
1895 “X-ray,” so named because of its unknown nature, was discovered by German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, opening a new era in treatment. Surgical procedures were the only known method of cancer management prior to 1897 and had been used since ancient times.
1896 Regression of mammary carcinoma after ovariectomy; basis for hormonal therapy in breast cancer.
1897 Emil H. Grubbe, Chicago physician, evidenced to have administered radiotherapy to cancer patients.
1898 Roswell Park Memorial Institute established as the New York State Pathological Laboratory (the 30-bed Cary Pavilion was added in 1913).
1899-1900 Chemotherapy as a term and concept was introduced by Paul Ehrlich of Germany, in his successful attack on syphilis.
1902 Pierre Curie and his wife Marie Sklodowska isolated radium salts from the mineral pitchblende in their laboratory. This emanated from her 1898 discovery of radium and polonium using techniques the Curies developed for isolating radioactive isotopes. [She shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband and the French physicist Henri Becquerel, becoming the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. In 1911 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry making her the only person to date to win a Nobel Prize in two scientific categories.]
1905 Louis B. Wilson introduced a method by which pieces of suspicious areas could be frozen at operation and then studied under the microscope immediately.
1910 A French worker produced skin cancer in a rat, following application of radium to the skin.
1910 A New York scientist, Peyton Rous, succeeded in producing tumors in healthy chickens using material extracted from a chicken with a malignant tumor. His experiments were the first clear demonstration of the role of a virus, the Rous Sarcoma Virus, now known as RSV.
1913 American Society for the Control of Cancer formed, now known as the American Cancer Society.
1913 American College of Surgeons formed.
1928 British Empire Cancer Campaign invited large number of cancer researchers from various countries to a congress in London, known as the First International Cancer Congress.
1928 An English investigator succeeded in producing skin cancer in experimental animals exposed to intense sunlight.
1933 First successful operation for removal of a cancerous lung was performed.
1935 International Union Against Cancer meets for the first time in Paris.
1936 Workers discovered that breast cancer in offspring of mice occurred only if the mothers came from a strain noted for its high incidence of breast cancer.
1937 National Cancer Institute established as a division of the U.S. Public Health Service.
1943 Modern use of chemotherapy was initiated with the sinking of the Liberty ship the John E. Harvey, carrying 100 tons of mustard gas and docked in Bari Harbor [Italy] on 12/3/43. Victims of the mustard gas poisoning had profound depression of leukocyte formation.
1945 American Society for the Control of Cancer renamed the American Cancer Society.
Clark’s outline ended at 1945. Perhaps two more important milestones he did not record were a given and too close to home to mention:
1941 The State of Texas created a new cancer hospital to treat all Texans regardless of ability to pay.
1946 The University of Texas System Board of Regents named Randolph Lee Clark Jr., M.D., the first permanent director and surgeon-in-chief of The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research.
Perhaps it was destined that the man who became an avid student of cancer history would build a hospital that would become known the world over for Making Cancer History®.
Next article: In his own words