By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
Fred Elliott, dean of the UT Dental Branch, was in Austin on July 13, 1946, the day Lee Clark accepted his new job as MD Anderson’s director and surgeon-in-chief.
“He was a pleasant, soft-spoken, attentive young man,” Elliott recalled years later. “He was ushered into the meeting of the Board of Regents, and it was not long until we were invited into the board meeting to meet the new director of the MD Anderson Hospital.”
Elliott (1893-1986) was an important part of Lee Clark’s life story, as they became close friends and collaborators over the years. Born in Pittsburg, Kansas, Elliott graduated from the Kansas City Dental College and soon after set up practice in that city’s Wirthin Building. Down the hall, he recalled in his memoirs, was a fellow with the unusual occupation of drawing cartoons filled with mice and ducks. Elliott’s newfound acquaintance was Walt Disney, who soon moved to California to join his brother, Roy, and build an empire known today as Disney Enterprises.
Fast forward to 1932, when Elliott was recruited from the University of Tennessee Dental College to lead the Texas Dental College in downtown Houston. Few Houston “dentists” at the time had a dental degree, and businessman John Kirby, whose name most will recognize, must have experienced a bad day at the dentist’s office when he determined in 1905 that his city would have properly trained dentists. Kirby gathered several friends and raised $9,000 to found the first dental school in Texas, with formally trained faculty and academic standards.
The Texas Dental College was established as a proprietary school and struggled for years. The volunteer faculty were paid only when the school made a profit. Thankfully, they were dedicated teachers with private practice incomes to fall back on.
Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report card on the state of medical schools in the U.S. affected dental schools as well. Proprietary schools were out, and academic medical and dental schools with research and education programs supporting patient care were in. Elliott’s job as dean was to affiliate his dental school with a university, and that he did. While Rice University said no, on May 14, 1943, the Texas Dental College became The University of Texas Dental Branch at Houston. Elliot went to work planning the construction of a UT dental school building. He was given a piece of the forest adjacent to the site designated for Lee Clark’s future cancer hospital.
The Texas Dental College had been in the red when Elliott arrived. Through hard work, he increased enrollment and reduced debt. Some months he even held his paycheck to make ends meet. When asked how many times he had traveled to Austin to secure the affiliation, he replied that he had no idea, other than that his old Chevrolet gave out after 100,000 miles.
When UT took over the school, Elliott had the budget in the black. Those who doubted his abilities were now believers. Interesting to note, upon Elliott’s arrival in Houston in 1932, Walter Cronkite Sr., then a member of the dental school’s faculty, helped the new dean and his wife find a house. Cronkite’s son, Walter, was Elliott’s paperboy. The younger Walter would grow up of course to be “the most trusted man in America,” delivering the news not by bicycle but via television as anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” Additionally, Dr. Ralph Cooley, a Texas Dental College alum, served as a trustee of Elliott’s dental college while urging his teenage son, Denton, to become a dentist. While the affiliation worked out, the son picked heart surgery over dental care.
When cancer took Ernst Bertner’s life in 1950, Clark was busy planning the construction of his new cancer hospital and Elliott was finalizing plans for his new dental school building. With the same architects, both buildings would be clad in pink Georgia Etowah marble. Collaboration saved state dollars as MD Anderson opened doors in 1954 and the new UT Dental Branch building opened the following year. Elliott received a faculty appointment at MD Anderson and Clark a faculty appointment at the dental school. Head and neck cancers were a focal interest, and the close working relationship enhanced the capabilities of both programs in synergistic ways.
Clark and Elliott understood that their success building institutions was in large part due to the generosity of Houstonians and Texans across the state who gave of their time, money and service. Early Houstonians such as William Marsh Rice, George Hermann and Monroe Anderson made fortunes and set an example of giving back to the community. Look at the buildings and programs throughout the Texas Medical Center (TMC), and you’ll find names like Jones, Cullen, Fondren, Brown, Hobby, Mitchell, McGovern and many more.
In 1954, the new MD Anderson would have been reduced in size and capabilities if it were not for the generosity of Houstonians and statewide individual donors and organizations who stepped forward when Clark needed help. Consider Monroe Anderson’s nephews Thomas, James and Leland, who followed in their uncle’s footsteps. Their good counsel and service meant a great deal to both Clark and Elliott. Uncle Mon taught his nephews important lessons they never forgot. Some lessons came harder than others.
James recalled one difficult lesson from childhood when Monroe gave him a toy cap pistol for his birthday, minus the caps that came on strips of paper to make the toy gun pop with the sounds of the Wild West. James queried his uncle as to the caps’ whereabouts after searching every corner of the toy gun’s box. Uncle Mon responded that the cap pistol was a gift, but James would have to save the 25 cents and buy the caps himself. It was a harsh lesson for a young boy that even a gift comes with added costs and responsibilities. Monroe’s nephews listened to the bigger lesson he preached ─ to work hard, save and give back ─ and paid forward the example of their uncle and other great Houstonians many times over.
James Anderson became one of Clark’s closest friends and a frequent visitor to the Oaks, where he freely shared his advice and ideas. While Frances Goff helped Clark learn the ropes of working with the Texas Legislature, James Anderson introduced Clark to key individuals and organizations in Houston. During frequent lunch meetings he shared suggestions on fundraising strategies and how Clark might best juggle his many irons in the fire.
Following Ernst Bertner’s death in 1950, the M.D. Anderson Foundation trustees approached Elliott to fill his shoes and lead the new Texas Medical Center. Elliott was much like the busy mayor of a growing medical city, working with Clark and leaders of other institutions who joined by invitation.
John Freeman, president of the M.D. Anderson Foundation, had stressed that it was the Texas, not Houston, Medical Center because it would become much larger than the city itself. He also insisted that other individuals and foundations have a role in the new medical city’s growth, as the M.D. Anderson Foundation was never intended to be the sole source of funding. Oilman Hugh Roy Cullen was among the first to step up, with four $1-million checks in the same week ─ hence, Baylor College of Medicine’s Cullen Building. Other generous Houstonians have followed, making a good idea in the 1940s an international medical treasure today.
Upon his appointment, Elliott recognized his new medical city needed communitywide input and created a Texas Medical Center Board of Directors, which continues to support its growth and development. A listing of past and present board members provides a who’s who of great Houstonians. Monroe’s nephew Leland Anderson served as the board’s first president.
Similarly, Lee Clark sought the best leadership minds across the state, men and women, to serve on MD Anderson’s Board of Visitors (BOV), an appointed advisory board of doers and thinkers who would serve as ambassadors of MD Anderson. Why “visitors”? Clark envisioned BOV members going out into their respective communities to “visit” with others about the institution and the role of private philanthropy in its mission to end cancer.
Clark asked James Anderson to serve as the BOV’s first president. The board’s first meeting was on Feb. 1, 1957. When James died in July 1958, his brother Thomas stepped in and continued the Anderson family legacy of service.
Today, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors is a dynamic group of volunteers from across the nation and around the world. Their contributions of time, talents and financial resources continue to play a significant role in the institution’s efforts toward Making Cancer History®.
Imagine how proud Lee Clark would be 75 years after his 1946 appointment to build and lead MD Anderson. If only he could visit for a day and see what has become of that small hospital he started with so many years ago at the old Baker estate. Houston is a city known the world over for generosity and can-do spirit, in times of prosperity or in the face of natural disasters and public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The growth of the Texas Medical Center and the comprehensive cancer center bearing the Anderson name proves that point many times over.
While Lee Clark deserves a great deal of credit for all he accomplished, he would be among the first to give credit where credit is due and celebrate the community of Houstonians and Texans whose generosity has made MD Anderson, the Texas Medical Center and the city at large what it is to today.
Next article: Knowing Lee Clark