By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
You might say education was woven within the strands of Lee Clark’s DNA. Founding colleges was a family tradition dating to pre-Civil War days. It was during the 1850s that Lee’s great-grandfather, Joseph Addison Clark (1815-1901) and his two sons, Clark’s grandfather Randolph and great-uncle Addison, started the Clark Private School, a small Christian school in Fort Worth.
In 1873, they moved the school about 50 miles southwest from Fort Worth to Thorp Spring near Granbury to build a larger school and escape the big city. They renamed it Add-Ran Male and Female College. Lee recalled years later that the school’s name came from his great-uncle’s first son, Addran, who died at age 3 in 1872.
Under the Clark brothers’ leadership, the school gained a national reputation for excellence. Lee Clark’s grandfather, Randolph, taught on the faculty for two decades while raising a family.
In 1895, with enrollment down from 500 to 294, the lowest in 16 years, Add-Ran moved from Thorp Spring to the urban setting of Waco. In time, the college moved back to Fort Worth, and on Sept. 10, 1910, newspapers across the state announced the school’s final renaming to Texas Christian University (TCU).
Lee Clark, born July 2, 1906, was 4 at the time. He would be forever proud of his family lineage in higher education. Walk around the TCU campus, and you’ll find the large, brick Clark Dormitory, and over off South University Drive stands a statue of Lee’s grandfather, Randolph (Mr. Randolph to the family), and great-uncle Addison.
From the day in 1946 when Lee took the job as first permanent director of MD Anderson, he knew that a strong educational mission added to patient care and research would be essential. “Comprehensive” was a word he understood long before President Richard Nixon’s National Cancer Act of 1971 brought the term comprehensive cancer center to the nation’s attention. He championed educational programs to grow and enhance the skills of medical professionals, inform patients and educate the community about cancer and its prevention. Education would a central pillar for building a great cancer hospital, and Lee intended to do just that.
The 39-year-old surgeon’s confidence as he became MD Anderson’s first permanent director and surgeon-in-chief begs the question: What else in his background prepared him for the herculean task ahead? His confidence impressed The University of Texas System Board of Regents as well as the university’s president, Theophilus S. Painter.
“I sincerely believe that my training has suited me for the position vacancy in the M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research,” Lee wrote in a letter to Painter dated Feb. 11, 1946. “And with its teaching, research and clinical phases, one could very happily spend a lifetime.”
The Clark family tradition of building educational institutions was alive and well in Mr. Randolph’s grandson, who understood that treating cancer through the development of new treatment modalities and rigorous research would require educational programs woven tightly into mix.
To fully understand Lee Clark’s preparation to build a cancer hospital, we need take a closer look at his own education, and that starts with his father, Randolph Clark Sr. (1871-1941) Clark Sr. started Midwestern University, originally Wichita Falls Junior College, and later found time to build two other Texas colleges. As a teen, Lee recalled watching his father raise money, plan buildings and problem-solve any challenge that arose — lessons the son would adopt in years to come. A Disciples of Christ (now Christian Church) minister and builder of schools, Clark Sr. offered his son lifetime advice: “Make no small plans.” Those words would be engraved on a plaque and placed front and center on Lee’s MD Anderson desk.
Growing up in Wichita Falls, Lee was good in science and math but struggled with foreign languages. Interviewed in the 1970s by MD Anderson historian Don Macon, he recalled that at age 15 he was so small that he started an exercise program and drank a gallon of Jersey milk a day for several years. His fitness program led him into boxing and wrestling and a lifelong interest in kinesiology. He became one of the first Eagle Scouts in Texas while lettering in multiple sports and graduating in 1923 from high school.
Lee was the fourth of seven children. A favorite memory was sitting at the crowded dinner table and listening to his father relive stories about building schools — always focused on the needs of students and community. Service was a word heard often.
“I come from a family of do-gooders,” Lee remarked years later.
As far back as middle school, Lee and Russell W. Cumley were best friends. Cumley would earn a Ph.D., become a gifted writer/editor and team up with Lee at MD Anderson. Early issues of MD Anderson’s Cancer Bulletin and textbooks such as the Clark/Cumley “Book of Health,” first published in 1953, reflect Lee’s focus on lifelong friendships as well as education.
From his mother, Leni Leoti Sypert (1876-1960), he learned the discipline of a gifted music teacher. Coming from German heritage, she was Miss Leni to the community. Organized and precise, she preached to her children that reaching one’s greatest potential required dedication and practice, practice, practice. Clark listened to her every word.
Self-sufficiency was a must during those lean years of the Great Depression. Lee never forgot how hard his parents worked, on an educator’s income, to support their large family during difficult economic times. While it was a given that college was the plan, getting the funds needed was never guaranteed. To all who knew him, Lee was no stranger to hard, physical work. Digging ditches, harvesting Texas Panhandle wheat during hot summer months and riding fence lines for weeks at a time as a cowhand sleeping under the stars were all part of his life experience.
After high school, he attended Tarleton Junior State College before transferring to the University of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, with a special interest in English literature, in 1927. During his sophomore year, he took a course taught by a medical school professor who interested him in cancer. The future surgeon was captivated, never to lose interest in the mysteries of cancer.
With beautiful handwriting, Lee taught himself to letter diplomas for extra cash. His medical school notes, stored among his papers in the Texas Medical Center archives, are a sterling example of his organized mind and precise penmanship.
When one of his college chemistry professors recommended him for a research job at DuPont’s Meadows Plant in Newark, New Jersey, Lee headed north. There he met and worked with his future medical school roommate and another lifelong friend, Jack Worsham. Worsham would in future years marry Lee’s sister, Dorothy.
At DuPont, Lee got first experience as an administrator leading a research team. Years later with more than a hint of pride he noted, “There were 22 people there who worked for me, and 14 of them had a Ph.D.” During his 15 months at DuPont he invented a process for making a pigment used in the manufacture of tires and paints. While DuPont offered him a permanent job to stay and run the plant, the Medical College of Virginia beckoned.
“Research and chemical engineering were satisfying, but they dealt with inanimate objects,” Clark recalled in a 1974 interview. “I hoped I would find in the study of medicine what I had been looking for all along, the meaning of life and people.”
Arriving in Richmond in 1930, two weeks late for medical school due to his DuPont work, he set his bag down only to learn the first exam was that week. His classmates were soon to learn he was a quick study. Roommate Jack and other new friends briefed him with class notes and watched as the grades were posted. Highest grade — Clark. He graduated No. 1 in his class in 1932, along with the only woman in the class, who held the No. 2 spot: Bertha M. (Bert) Davis from Ashville, North Carolina. They married after graduation, on June 11 in Buncombe, North Carolina. For their honeymoon, the two newly minted doctors took their boards. It was a marriage that lasted 61 years with two children.
Graduation and marriage were not the only highlights of 1932. Throughout college and in medical school, Lee was an outstanding wrestler and even did some baseball and swim coaching on the side. All that Jersey milk and mom’s practice ethic paid off as he won the Southeastern Regional Championship of the Amateur Athletic Union for his 155-pound weight division. The victory came with a berth in the Olympics try-outs scheduled July 30, 1933, in Los Angeles. It was tempting, but postgraduate medical training took precedent.
Years later, MD Anderson employees working close to Lee’s office early in his tenure were known to tell stories about difficult individuals who provoked his ire. More than once he reminded those causing unnecessary grief of his wrestling prowess. That tended to settle differences quickly.
The husband/wife team set sights on postgraduate training. He would hone his skills as a surgeon and she as an anesthesiologist. They were young, gifted and eager to continue their medical education. In July 1932, both began 18-month internships at Garfield Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Interesting aside, the head of surgery at Garfield was Dr. Francis Xavier McGovern, father of Dr. John P. McGovern. In 2015, The University of Texas Medical School at Houston became the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
With their Garfield training completed, the Drs. Clark looked to their next postgraduate training opportunity, and for that they would travel far. The year was 1934, and the Clarks packed their bags for 20 months. They were Paris-bound.
Next article: The surgical legacy of Lee Clark