Chapter 01: The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Project


Chapter 01: The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Project



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In this segment, Dr. Tomasovic provides an overview of the Historical Resources Center –which he founded-- and the Making Cancer History Voices Oral History Project that it oversees.

Publication Date



The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Overview; The Value of the Oral History Project; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Culture; Building/Transforming the Institution; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research; The History of Health Care, Patient Care

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Let me say a few words about the oral history project and its origins. It came from some discussions that Steve Stuyck [Oral History Interview], who's the Vice President for Public Affairs at MD Anderson, and I had in 1999. And we were talking about MD Anderson, and the importance of its history. We were both familiar with one of the earlier books. A couple of other earlier books had been written about MD Anderson. But we felt quite a lot of time had passed, and we wanted to try to see if we could get an updated book of MD Anderson. And we felt we needed to take some steps to help preserve MD Anderson's history. So we wrote a request for funding to President John Mendelsohn [Oral History Interview], and that was submitted to him around the date on the document that I have here. We submitted a proposal to him December 9th of 1999. And the proposal was entitled Establishing a Historical Resources Center at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. And we had a task force that prepared this document, chaired by myself. Kathryn Hoffman, who was the executive director of the research medical library at the time, was a member of the task force. Walter Pagel, the director of scientific publications, was a member. Mary Jane Schier, whose title escapes me a moment. I think she was a senior editor or -- but she was in scientific publications, still is in scientific publications. Steve Stuyck, who is the vice president for public affairs as I said. And Elizabeth Travis [Oral History Interview], who at that time I think didn't have an administrative title. She was a professor and still is in experimental radiation oncology. And now she currently holds the title as the associate VP for Women's Programs [Women Faculty Programs]. This proposal that Dr. Mendelsohn approved three days later on December 12th called for three related projects. Establishing an archive of significant documents and other materials. Creating a program to tape and catalog oral histories of faculty, staff and others who have contributed to MD Anderson's mission in advances against cancer. And a series of publications and/or books that describe the achievement of the institution. So that was the start of this project. We consulted with various local public historians in the area whose names are given in the document.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

I notice that the word voices figures very prominently in the title of this project. And I'm curious about the significance of that. Why choose to do an oral history project as opposed to simply collecting CVs? And why tell the stories in this way?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

The voices phrase was much later in this process, probably within the last three or four years we developed that tagline as part of a grant submission that Kathy Hoffman made to the -- well, you'll have to do some research on that one. I'm drawing a blank now. I think it was a TexShare grant as I recall. And we used that phraseology there. But back to your question why do that. The primary reason is that CVs and resumes, particularly CVs, are very structured documents that give metrics of a professional career. Lists of publications. Lists of courses taught. Lists of memberships in professional societies. Lists of various academic appointments. And they don't capture most of the important details about how you came about to do those research that led to those publications. What was the significance? What was the impact of your role in those professional societies? Many of the very important things about the contributions that people make to an organization, to the history of cancer research and care in the United States, very many of those things are not captured in these kinds of documents. And even reading the papers describing the clinical protocols and the outcomes from that don't give very many of the important details about the relationships between people and why that direction was taken, what were the challenges that people overcame. That's why we wanted to capture oral histories. And so we felt that MD Anderson history was fascinating. It had humble beginnings. It had a daunting mission. It accomplished a lot in a relatively short period.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

How would you describe that mission at the beginning, the daunting mission?

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

Well, in the 1940s when the institution was created, cancer was a death sentence. People didn't like to talk about cancer. Public awareness was relatively low. People whispered about it in families. But it was a terrible terrible ravaging disease. And the treatments that we had were quite primitive compared to now. Massive radical surgeries that left people extraordinarily disfigured. Caustic agents. Radiation that was very poorly controlled and delivered to lots of unnecessary structures in the body. So the morbidity and the mortality from the treatments was severe. And people were extremely afraid of the disease and afraid to talk about it. And so the people who committed to those kinds of careers were dealing with a very very difficult disease. And MD Anderson was a place where people came who really had a mission and believed in that mission, and many of them spent their entire lives here, and some of them died from the exposure to the agents that they were trying to develop for use to make them safer for people.

Tacey A. Rosolowski, Ph.D:

They literally gave their lives to the cause.

Stephen Tomasovic, PhD:

That's correct. So those are the stories that we wanted to save and promote. And help contribute to our shared sense of mission, provide a resource for researchers in the future, and try to save some of that important information.

Chapter 01: The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Project