By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
Perhaps Albert Einstein said it best: “The value of achievement lies in the achieving.”
Lee Clark hired achievers. Like his father and his grandfather who built institutions of learning, he knew how to spot talent. He built a team of MD Anderson achievers who brought their individual skills and amplified his own. It was a winning formula for success that Clark employed consistently.
As Clark opened the new hospital in 1954 with the fields of radiotherapy rapidly evolving and chemotherapy emerging, he needed to find extraordinary achievers to lead and build highly specialized, team-based approaches to cancer care within their areas of expertise. In 1954, for example, he hired Dr. Felix Rutledge to lead gynecology. Rutledge, an Alabama native, had trained at Johns Hopkins and came to MD Anderson to build a highly specialized Department of Gynecological Oncology focused on cancer care, treatment and discovery. Rutledge was a pioneer of this new, cancer-specialized approach to gynecology.
Also in 1954, Clark searched for a pediatrician to lead MD Anderson’s new Department of Pediatrics. He found another achiever in a Duke-trained pediatrician named Dr. Grant Harvey Taylor (1903-1995). Grant Taylor was a humanist in the tradition of Sir William Osler.
In fact, he had trained under Duke’s founding medical school dean, Dr. Wilburt Davison, who had trained under Osler at Oxford University from 1913 to 1915.
Taylor was more than a good pediatrician dedicated to caring for children with cancer. He was an educator who, following WWII, directed the nation’s Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission to catalog the dire medical effects of nuclear irradiation on the human body and spread international compassion for the Japanese citizens who endured the horrors of nuclear destruction.
Under Taylor’s watch, new developments such as combination chemotherapy, pioneered in the 1960s by Dr. Emil J Freireich and his new Department of Developmental Therapeutics, rewrote the history of childhood leukemia as a curable disease. Grant Taylor placed an emphasis on treating cancer as well as the psychosocial needs of the child and family to address living after treatment. He brought to bear on childhood cancer a team of physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers and more who used a holistic approach to treat the whole patient, not just the cancer, involving the family in the process. They arranged for public school classrooms in the hospital to ease the patient’s transition from hospital to home. This was novel thinking at the time. It turns out that adjusting to challenges and new norms was something Grant Taylor knew a great deal about.
When he was 5, Taylor’s father, a pharmacist, announced that their family of three was moving from San Francisco to the Canadian prairie, where free land was available for the asking. Taylor remembered his father taking him to a hillside overlooking San Francisco Bay and thrusting a shotgun in his hands so he could learn to shoot — something he might need to know.
The year was 1909, and Calgary’s railway station was a big tent. “The seats were stumps of trees cut to sitting height,” Taylor recalled in his memoir. “My father left my mother and me in the station while he rushed to the Land Office to file on our homestead.”
Life was hard on the Canadian prairie. Grant became an eagle-eyed shot hunting grouse and other game for the dinner table while learning to make do with whatever was at hand. His parents were keen that he get a good education, so they moved back to California for his college years. He earned a degree in mechanical engineering at San José State and a master’s in education at Stanford before finding his way to the Duke University School of Medicine.
Grant Taylor was a perfect fit for Clark’s interests and needs, with clinical skills in pediatrics, a military background providing care for soldiers and citizens alike on Okinawa in the Pacific theater (bronze star included), firsthand knowledge of radiation’s effects on the human body gained from leading physician-scientists in Hiroshima, a post-war Duke faculty role steeped in Oslerian principles of humanism and a strong background in education and teaching.
In addition to appointing Taylor to lead Pediatrics, Clark named him to follow in his footsteps as dean of the Postgraduate School of Medicine. In that role, Taylor networked with medical societies across Texas, lining up physician training contracts while developing the curriculum with input from his fellow department heads at MD Anderson. It was a difficult task, given the UT System Board of Regents had designated MD Anderson to run the program, yet the Texas Legislature had not provided funding. Instead, the M.D. Anderson Foundation provided the funds, and perpetuity was not part of the trustees’ plan. Clark had gone through several deans since 1950 and even got Dr. Mavis Kelsey to step in as acting dean on two occasions while he continued his appeals in Austin for support.
Taylor advanced the school’s continuing medical education mission despite the funding problems. In 1963, working with Clark, he helped retool the underfunded postgraduate school into The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) at Houston. Training basic scientists in the clinical setting of what was quickly becoming the world’s largest medical center was a winning idea. Today, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences provides advanced research-oriented degree programs of the highest caliber through a partnership of its parent institutions, MD Anderson and The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth).
Interesting aside, as dean of the Postgraduate School of Medicine, Taylor sought outside help and recruited one of his former students at Duke, a pediatric allergist in New Orleans interested in starting his own private allergy clinic. Taylor suggested Houston might be a good place for an allergist, and, in 1956, Dr. John P. McGovern (1921-2007) arrived in Houston with academic appointments at Baylor College of Medicine and MD Anderson. McGovern started a foundation in 1960, built the largest privately owned allergy clinic in the nation, invested brilliantly in real estate and stocks and made a fortune that his foundation continues to give back to the Houston community. UTHealth’s medical school became the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in 2015. Few realize Grant Taylor made that first call from MD Anderson to bring McGovern to Houston.
Taylor, like Clark, was a horizontal thinker who wanted a better means to communicate across all institutions. Taylor saw the training value of cameras in surgery that Clark had instituted and wanted to expand television’s reach. Why bring Noble laureates like Linus Pauling or James Watson of Watson and (Francis) Crick fame to Houston as guest lecturers (and he did) without making their talks available to the entire family of Texas Medical Center institutions? There had to be a way to connect these institutions for educational purposes, and Grant Taylor was out to find it.
“Shortly after my arrival in Houston, I learned that the Governor of South Carolina had introduced a novel educational program throughout the State,” Taylor wrote. “In essence, the Governor’s plan consisted of electronically connecting all the schools within the State for the purposes of using educational videotapes to enrich the educational curriculum and spare the overburdened teaching corps.”
This was novel in the 1950s, and Taylor decided to give it a try: “I arranged for the tape to be transmitted from The University of Texas Dental Branch, and for the signal to go by inter-institutional cable to the M.D. Anderson Hospital and, thence, by cable which I strung from lamppost (sic) to lamppost across the center, then through an open window on the third floor of the library building, and finally, to the projection equipment on the podium in the auditorium of the library where the Executive Committee of the Harris County Medical Society eagerly awaited their first look at televised medical education.”
As the austere audience assembled, Taylor checked and rechecked his signal and was greeted with a clear picture sure to impress the skeptical crowd. To his dismay as he took the podium, he heard a loud “puck” as the television screen fizzled into a cloud of snowflakes. The unimpressed audience shook their collective heads, and teleconferencing took a back seat as a good idea whose time had not come.
He soon learned the sole culprit was a small 5-cent transistor that had shorted out. “For the next several years, just as a reminder, I carried the remains of that failed transistor in my wallet,” Taylor wrote.
That burned-out transistor served to motivate Taylor never to give up. In time, he would help launch a Texas Medical Center network called UT-Television (UT-TV), which was housed at UTHealth in the early years and moved to MD Anderson in the 1990s. UT-TV produced and syndicated many programs, including Dr. Red Duke’s popular “Health Reports” in the 1980s. Today, MD Anderson’s video program is a multifaceted, collaborative effort delivering award-winning content creation, telehealth services, video conferencing and more ─ a far cry from what started with Dr. Taylor stringing cable on lamp poles across campus in the 1950s.
In his later years, Taylor was honored as a professor emeritus of Pediatrics at MD Anderson. Prior to his death in 1995 at age 92, he was often seen collecting aluminum cans to recycle. The dollars he raised were placed in a Grant Taylor fund to help children with cancer, yet another reflection of his commitment for helping others. Soon collection boxes in Taylor’s name were created, and he no longer had to carry the bags himself.
Taylor was a doer who never let a good cause stop him, whether he needed to string cable across the Texas Medical Center or carry a bag of empty cans to help the children. He is but one example of Lee Clark’s early recruits of doers, achievers, innovators and builders of programs. One sees through Grant Taylor the careful eye Clark used to find individuals with talent, passion and drive to serve the larger institutional vision he had in mind. Lee Clark had a gift for recruiting achievers and, to our collective benefit, never stopped using it.
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