This year, V. Craig Jordan, Ph.D., became the first medical scientist to be included in an elite cadre of individuals appointed to the British honors system.
A professor of Breast Medical Oncology and Molecular and Cellular Oncology at MD Anderson, Jordan holds dual American and British citizenships. Queen Elizabeth II this summer appointed him “Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George” for services to women’s health. The honor celebrates his discovery and development of a group of medicines called Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulators (SERMs), which reduce breast cancer incidence in high-risk women.
The Order of St. Michael and St. George is the sixth-most senior in the British honors system. Its insignia depicts saints at war, a fitting image that symbolizes not only Jordan’s heroic efforts on behalf of women’s health, but also his extensive military service.
For the past 50 years, Jordan has led what he calls a "double life." For his day job, Jordan developed breakthrough breast cancer treatments, pioneering the estrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen, which has been credited with saving the lives of millions of women worldwide.
But for most of his career, Jordan also served as a reserve officer in the British Special Air Service (SAS), one of the most elite military units in the world. Founded in 1941, the SAS is the rough equivalent of the U.S. Army Green Berets or Navy SEALs — a small, secretive fraternity of Special Forces soldiers and intelligence officers. In the event of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the West, Jordan would have deployed to Germany as an expert on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
"I was the Indiana Jones of medicine," as Jordan puts it.
Jordan's remarkable story begins in New Braunfels, Texas, where he was born in 1947. His parents — an English mother and an American father — met during World War II in London, where his mother was serving as a fire service officer in charge of 20 young women whose job it was to guide fire engines to houses that had been bombed. His father, an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was training for the D-Day invasion.
When Jordan was 3, his parents divorced and his mother took him back to her home county of Cheshire, in northwest England. It was there the future cancer researcher developed an obsession with chemistry after discovering some old textbooks at a neighbor's house. As a teenager, Jordan built a chemistry lab in his bedroom, which he stocked with sulfuric acid, mercury and other dangerous compounds he had finagled from his grammar school and a local pharmacy.
While studying pharmacology at the University of Leeds, Jordan, inspired by his maternal grandfather’s wartime service, joined the Officers' Training Corps and volunteered for courses in chemical and biological warfare. Because of his scientific background, Jordan was recruited into the British Army's Intelligence Corps, becoming the youngest captain in the service. Eventually he went on to join the SAS, where he received weapons and intelligence training.
Meanwhile, Jordan's academic career was taking off. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the anti-estrogen drug ICI-46474, better known as tamoxifen, which had been developed by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) to block estrogen and prevent pregnancy. When tamoxifen turned out to increase, not decrease, fertility in women, ICI nearly gave up on the drug. But Jordan convinced the company to let him experiment with it as a treatment for breast cancer.
"They said, ‘There's no money in this,'" Jordan recalls. "If we put every single patient in Britain who's got metastatic breast cancer on tamoxifen, we'll make about 12,000 pounds a year."
It was Jordan's research team at the University of Leeds that uncovered how to effectively use tamoxifen to treat breast cancer in patients whose disease is fueled by estrogen. Jordan developed the strategy of long-term adjuvant tamoxifen therapy, as well as describing and deciphering the properties of a new group of medicines called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMS). The team's results were published in a 1977 paper that laid the groundwork for the five SERMs that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Jordan also discovered the preventive abilities of tamoxifen and raloxifene, also a SERM drug. The FDA approved the medicines for reducing breast cancer incidence in high-risk women. Jordan was chair of the scientific committee for the trial.
Tamoxifen remains one of the world's most successful cancer drugs and is on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines. The drug is estimated to have saved the lives of millions of women around the world. So many that "nobody can really keep track anymore," Jordan says.
After occupying prestigious positions at the University of Leeds, Switzerland's Ludwig Institute, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, Fox Chase Cancer Center and Georgetown University, Jordan returned to Texas in 2014 after being recruited to MD Anderson.
He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009, and the National Academy of Medicine in 2017. Jordan received the Sir James Black Award from the British Pharmacological Society in 2015, the Endocrine Society’s Aurbach Award for Translational Research in 2018, and the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics’ Reynold Spector Award in 2019. In 2002, Queen Elizabeth II named him Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his work with tamoxifen and his services to international breast cancer research. In 2016, the German Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics named Jordan one of the “Big Four of the Millennium,” celebrating the four medical scientists whose work in the 20th century created the standard of care for women in the 21st century.
A mandatory retirement age of 55 forced Jordan to leave the SAS, but he remains a member of the SAS Regimental Association. General Sir Michael Rose, a former SAS Commander, sponsored him, with the citation, “this officer has saved more lives than any member, regular or reserve, in the regiment’s history.”
During Jordan’s tenure at MD Anderson, he was the honorary Colonel of Leeds University Officer’s Training Corps, and made regular training visits back to Leeds. But it was on an American Airlines’ flight, when he was wearing his SAS lapel wings, that Jordan was approached by flight attendant Christiana Cruz about a project called “Honor our Heroes.” On Memorial Day 2017, the project placed flags near the reflecting pool in Washington D.C., in honor of every American who fell during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Jordan saw the opportunity to sponsor the display of a Union Flag for each of the British Fallen as American allies. He sought authorization through the military attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., who attended the ceremony.
When asked why he continued his national service while enjoying a successful career in research and investing in prizes and scholarships for young students, Jordan laughs as if the answer were obvious.
"I'm a participant," he says. "This was my way of paying back the free education I received in Britain. That sense of service is very, very strong in me."