By Bryant Boutwell and Charles M. Balch
Oct. 21-23, 1954, were rewarding days for Lee Clark as formal dedication ceremonies took place for the new cancer hospital in the Texas Medical Center. There were scientific presentations, tours of the facilities and official dedication ceremonies featuring Texas Gov. Allan Shivers.
The outdoor dedication ceremony on the final day also included the chairman of the UT Board of Regents, Tom Sealy, with Clark introducing numerous government officials and special guests. Even the rain could not dampen spirts as guests moved inside. John Freeman, president of the M.D. Anderson Foundation, attended, as did members of Monroe Anderson’s family. Sadly, Ernst Bertner had been taken by cancer four years earlier.
Clark and his administrative assistant, Frances Goff, made sure to include all who helped make the day possible — contractors, architects and many community organizations statewide. Clark often said MD Anderson belonged to all the people, and he meant it. Public tours of the new facilities were meticulously organized and plaques throughout the building honored the individuals and groups who gave generously of their time and money.
While the platitudes of the national press and community were heartwarming, it was the respect and appreciation of his faculty and staff that meant the most to Clark. On Jan. 15, 1955, they gathered to honor their leader. Roy Heflebower, his assistant director at the Oaks, spoke first, noting the determination, planning, difficulties in financing and myriad other challenges during almost eight years of planning and construction.
“It is almost eight years since the active start on plans for this building began. … Only those of us who have been closely associated with you during the years of the struggle can fully appreciate the role you played. … We can but hope that through our efforts, under your leadership, humanity will grow stronger and better through what is done here,” Heflebower said.
The dedication program described “a $9 million, multi-storied, multi-winged building with more than 1,600 rooms ranging from a radiotherapy suite 20 feet under concrete earth up to an elevator penthouse nearly 20 feet above the sundeck on the seventh floor. And in between, there is more than a mile of labyrinthine corridors and stairways.”
What visitors saw as they toured the facilities for the first time was a building divided into four wings. The east and west nursing wings, the only two containing patient rooms, were six stories tall and 385 feet long, with elevators in the center. Atop the nursing wings were roof gardens and the director’s office, which created a partial seventh floor. The medical services wing spanned five floors and extended north from the elevators between the two nursing wings, forming a T-shape. The five-floor research laboratory wing was an outgrowth from the middle of the eastern wall of the medical services wing. Beneath all the wings was a basement, called the ground floor. A concrete vault for Dr. Gilbert Fletcher’s radiotherapy suites was below the ground floor. A ramp, long lost through the addition of MD Anderson buildings that surround the original structure today, facilitated patient drop-offs and pickups.
Architectural Forum, the voice of American architecture (1892-1974), had sent reporters to Houston two years ahead of the dedication to introduce readers to the pink palace of healing:
“The building, which was totally unique in its design, spanned 320,000 square feet… Anderson will have a horizontal flow of transportation (linking treatment, research and teaching facilities on every floor) without any sacrifice of vertical communication within departments. …Houston’s M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research in the Texas Medical Center is not a pallid temple to antiseptics, it has walls clad in an unusually rich, rosy marble (Georgia Etowah pink) and the furnishings are by one of the leading modern interiors firms.”
That Georgia Etowah pink marble, which Clark selected to project hope and compassion, did something else — it provided added interior space. Here’s how. While Houston had a 13-inch minimum building code for exterior walls, the architects found the 7/8-inch pink marble veneer backed by volcanic aggregate could provide a stronger 9-inch wall while also providing greater weather resistance than brick. Test after test proved their point. The city amended its code and Clark gained 3,400 square feet of usable floor space.
Designed for 310 patient beds, Clark’s new hospital skipped on large wards, with 10 nursing units limited to a combination of one-, two- and four-bed rooms. There was no intensive care unit (ICU) since each floor was staffed as an ICU. The inpatient pediatric oncology program was at the time one of the largest in the nation.
Architectural Forum reported: “Hotel-like accommodations were evident with bright colors, two-way radio communications between patients and nursing as well as a call system for doctors using light control panels at every nursing station. Some single-occupancy rooms had sliding glass doors facing out to a balcony. A pneumatic tube system that Clark suggested would “pay for itself in runners’ wages within two years” aided communications between floors and departments.
Interestingly, Clark wanted the color of the curtains to be visible from the street as well as in the patients’ rooms. When curtains custom-designed in New York were installed, Goff and Dr. Clark hurried outside for a look. “Looks like the Caribbean Anderson,” he exclaimed with a broad smile. It was new and innovative, and he liked it.
Air conditioning throughout was novel for the day and welcomed by all. MD Anderson became the first hospital in the country to provide patients’ meals in food-warming carts from a central kitchen. In the outpatient clinics, dictating booths and equipment spaced along corridors outside examination rooms facilitated patient recordkeeping. This equipment was connected directly to monitors in the central secretarial pool for quick recording of examinations and diagnoses. Sounds ancient today, but this was 1954 and no one had yet heard of Apple or Dell.
About 80,000 square feet of space was devoted to research, with scientists addressing protein chemistry, experimental medicine, psychosomatic medicine, anatomical pathology, experimental pathology, physics, diagnostic and therapeutic radiology, and more. That year, 36 new research projects were approved. The modern MD Anderson laboratory and research wings accommodated nearly 100 clinical research faculty. Clark understood that basic scientists and clinicians needed to work together and train the next generation. The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences was born in 1963 out of this very thinking.
Gilbert Fletcher’s radiological suites, encased in 6-foot cement walls below ground, were a popular stop on the tour. Backyard bomb shelters were common at the time, and now the public saw a much better use for radiation and cement bunkers. Fletcher’s growing arsenal of radiation therapy equipment, which began with the first cobalt-60 machine he built with Leonard Grimmett, set MD Anderson apart and ahead of every other cancer center in this country. In his new home, Dr. Fletcher was just getting started. Already, he needed more space for the advanced equipment and techniques he had in mind.
Clark and his wife, Bert, invested a great deal of thought in designing the hospital’s new surgical suites. Operating rooms were grouped in pairs around one central work and scrub-up room. This allowed one surgeon working with two teams to conduct two operations simultaneously. Since Bert was a practicing anesthesiologist, the anesthesia program was equally well-planned. To keep tanks and other bulky equipment from cluttering up the operating room floor, the architects designed a two-way storage wall loaded with gases piped to the prep rooms and equipped, on the operating room side, with control panels to which the anesthetists could attach a thin hose. Sterile supplies were similarly prepared and pushed through another two-way storage wall with stacks of drawer trays. Each morning a nurse used the daily surgery schedule to prepare the instruments and packs for each operation on a separate tray.
And let’s not overlook education. Clark, the educator, designed his hospital with teaching in mind. The new MD Anderson allowed televised surgical procedures for teaching purposes — no other hospital in the country had as much television and recording capability. Clark had first been interested in cancer when he saw an early black-and-white film of cancer cells during medical school. Now he could teach with color images.
Conferencing facilities included a 350-seat auditorium on the first floor that would host scientists from around the world as well as faculty and employee meetings. MD Anderson’s ever-growing international research symposia quickly outgrew the 350 seats. In time, Clark negotiated with the nearby Shamrock Hilton to accommodate 500-plus scientists annually.
The small collection of medical books and journals Drs. Bertner and Clark started at the Baker estate had grown exponentially. By 1954, the new MD Anderson library was considered the largest collection of books and journals on neoplastic disease in the country. The hospital also had one of the largest audiovisual departments in the nation, generating scores of educational films and slides to support Clark’s educational mission, not to mention his scientific publications department, a model for other institutions to this day. MD Anderson’s monthly Cancer Bulletin had nearly 100,000 subscribers worldwide when the hospital opened.
You get the idea. Lee Clark scored a home run. The Houston Post reported: “No other cancer center is so much the product of one man’s effort.” Already, Clark was recruiting the best talent to be found — men and women. Clark sought talent over gender, as the next installment of this series will tell.
Next article: Heroines of the early days