1st Reading from Making Cancer History - Designing a dream - Video Transcript

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center
Date: June 2009
Duration: 0 / 04:24

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James S. Olson, Ph.D.:

A little background of this piece – we’re going back to when R. Lee Clark was a medical student. He was president of M. D. Anderson beginning in 1946, so we’re going back to his medical school days.

As a young medical student returning to Virginia after a summer in Texas, Clark was hitchhiking through Atlanta when one building at Emory University caught his attention. Clad in Georgia Etowah pink marble, it seemed to his artistic fancy a beacon of peace and hope. The drabness of the wooden barracks at the Baker estate offended his aesthetic taste, and he dreamed of building a new home for M. D. Anderson, one with the rosy hues of Georgia Etowah pink marble. M. D. Anderson needed a new home. Among other things, Clark wanted to go into pediatrics, and the Baker estate was ill equipped for treating children. Cancer treatments required long hospital stays for children and their families and more elaborate facilities for supportive care. In 1947, M.D.Anderson treated just three children. Clark ached to employ chemotherapy for childhood leukemia, but he refused to treat patients in the absence of excellent supportive care. He began dropping hints to politicians. In January 1947, when the legislature convened, Clark took a room in Austin at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel. At 6:30 every morning, he met in the dining room with elected officials and shared eggs, bacon, grits, and vision. The guests included Alexander McCauley (A. M.) Aikin Jr., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In Aikin, Clark found a booster. After his father’s miserable death from laryngeal carcinoma, Aikin had vowed to do something about the disease.

In June 1949, with the approval of the board of regents, Clark hired the architectural firm of MacKie and Kamrath to draw up preliminary plans. He was a testy client, often hovering around the architects, checking on their progress, and suggesting design changes. A neophyte in cancer medicine, Clark believed that a cure might be on the horizon, and he worried lest the new hospital bearchitecturally unsuited for change.

In 1943, Selman Waksman of Rutgers had synthesized the antibiotic streptomycin. First administered to a tuberculosis patient in 1944, the drug wiped out the bacteria. In 1949, as Clark promoted his own plans, the legislature closed the state tuberculosis hospital, leaving a vast, sprawling complex of buildings adaptable to little else. Clark wanted to make sure that M. D. Anderson could retool after he wiped out cancer.

While the architects drew up plan after plan, Clark raised $3.8 million from public and private sources. To finance the portion of the building housing the radioactive materials and radiotherapy machines, he approached the state legislature for $1.35million. Budget-conscious conservatives stalled the bill and in doing so badly miscalculated public sentiment. They had denied Texans the most recent technological innovations in cancer medicine.

Governor Allan Shivers called on Frances Goff, the state budget director. Goff had worked for the House Appropriations Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the Texas Railroad Commission. Active in the women’s club movement, she mobilized the Women’s Field Army of the American Cancer Society, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the American Legion Auxiliary, the Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Order of the Eastern Star. Goff had the bearing of a sergeant-major, stiff-postured and attired in suits and sturdy, short-heeled shoes. Opponents disappeared before her onslaught faster than TB bacteria in the presence of streptomycin.

During a special session in 1950, the legislature passed the bill after Shivers threw in the weight of his office: “Cancer is a public problem,” he said. “Scientists tell us that no one is ever really immune from the disease. There is no cancer germ, no human cancer virus. There is no vaccination, no immunization against it. . . . Cancer takes educator, scientist, businessman, and beggar without considering human values.” On March 1, 1950, Shivers signed the bill.

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Video by: Deborah E. Thomas