Chapter 12: The Lay of the Land: Developmental Therapeutics and MD Anderson in 1965


Chapter 12: The Lay of the Land: Developmental Therapeutics and MD Anderson in 1965



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In this chapter, Dr. Freireich talks about the Department of Developmental Therapeutics at MD Anderson, the prominent physicians he worked with at MD Anderson in the mid-1960s, more about Dr. R. Lee Clark, and the use of radiotherapy for treating cancer.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Overview; Portraits; MD Anderson Culture; Working Environment; Growth and/or Change; Leadership; Obstacles, Challenges; Institutional Politics; Controversy; Critical Perspectives on MD Anderson; MD Anderson History

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


Emil J Freireich, MD

Okay. What's happening at work? Dr. Frei is head of the Developmental Therapeutics. I'm deputy head. Grant Taylor agreed that Pediatrics should be a part of our department, so it became part of our department. Remember, 100 percent of my work was in childhood leukemia. I'd never had any pediatric training, but the pediatricians in those days only took care of healthy kids. They didn't like leukemia and cancer. It wasn't popular with pediatricians.

Lesley Brunet, MA

Were Dr. Sullivan and Dr. Sutow already doing research here?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Yes, they were. They had Sullivan and Sutow. Grant Taylor was the major one who was recruiting me. He loved the childhood stuff. Grant Taylor was the inverse of Dr. Clark. Dr. Clark was ambitious; he would've done anything to reach his goals. Grant Taylor really wanted to do good things. He should've been a minister. He was such a nice man.

Lesley Brunet, MA

So he wasn't upset about Pediatrics being part of your department?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Oh, he begged us to come. We were curing children, and he wasn't. He wanted us to bring this stuff to his kids. He used to go around and bring food to the children, and he'd hug the mothers. Grant Taylor was just full of compassion. He just loved people. He wanted us to come in the worst way, so we came, and we started to work.

Lesley Brunet, MA

When Developmental Therapeutics was established, it had 3 sections: Research Hematology, Applied Molecular Biology, and Pediatrics.

Emil J Freireich, MD


Lesley Brunet, MA

Was C.C. Shullenberger the head of Hematology?

Emil J Freireich, MD

We're coming to all that. When we walked in the front door, Dr. Clark was absolute dictator. He answered to nobody. He had 3 department chairmen. Dr. Howe, who was in charge of Medicine, he'd recruited out of the military. The first person he recruited was Bill Russell, Chairman of Pathology, and then Ed White. The fourth person who sat at the table was Felix Haas, who kind of worried about the basic science people. And there was a fifth one. I forgot Gilbert Fletcher. There were 5 guys, and this is who ran MD Anderson. Dr. Frei never liked administrative things, so I always did the administrative work. I did that at NCI, and I did that here. I used to go to the department head meetings to report back to Frei. The only one in this group who cared anything about DT was Dr. Russell. He had a grant, and he cared about DT. Cliff Howe was a very nice man, but no sparks.

Lesley Brunet, MA

I got the feeling there was some conflict with the Department of Medicine. Actually, they were in conflict with a lot of people.

Emil J Freireich, MD

I walked in, and we're part of this thing, and Dr. Clark said, "You know, J, cancer treatment is surgery. The rest of it is very helpful, but everything supports surgery."

Lesley Brunet, MA

Dr. Clark or Dr. Howe said this?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Dr. Clark.

Lesley Brunet, MA

Well, of course. He was a surgeon. Is that why he said it?

Emil J Freireich, MD

Dr. Fletcher is very flamboyant. He stood up and said, "Dr. Clark, you're almost right, but for your information, radiotherapy can cure cancer." They were doing work on head and neck and the cervix, and Fletcher was the first person to claim that radiation therapy could cure cancer—not palliate, cure. Being the jerk that I am, I said, "Dr. Clark, chemotherapy can cure cancer, and the future of cancer treatment is going to be with chemicals, systemic cancer, because everybody who dies of cancer dies of systemic cancer. Local control will never control cancer." So I wasn't popular, day one, because Cliff Howe was standing there, and Cliff Howe had never dreamt of curing cancer. Also, there was Shullenberger. Shullenberger was a military guy. A lot of the people Clark recruited were military people. You work 8 hours a day. Then you get drunk at the faculty club, and that's life. You work 5 days a week and you build up your retirement. I'll tell you some "Shully" stories later, but he had no interest in anything academic. He was just doing his job.

Things were going to get very heated here in the first couple of years, because Dr. Frei came in '64, but he left in '72. So it's obvious things weren't going well at the beginning. We would sit out on the lawn in the middle of the summer in those Field Town Apartments and commiserate about how unfortunate our situation was. We had no resources. We had zero prospects, and things went from bad to worse.

There were 2 guys who did do some research. Danny Bergsagel had left, but he had a fellow, a trainee, Raymond Alexanian. When I arrived in '65, Alexanian had inherited the myeloma program from Bergsagel. Bergsagel was the first person to treat myeloma effectively with an alkylating agent. That put MD Anderson on the map as far as treatment was concerned. Bergsagel was an innovator. Alexanian [oral history interview] trained with Bergsagel, and he was here. The other person that was here was a guy named Joe Sinkovics. If you haven't met him, you have to meet him. He's in practice in Tampa. He's a very colorful Hungarian, and he did kind of immunotherapy. It was science, in some sense. During my recruitment, the people who took me around were Sinkovics and Alexanian.

When I was appointed deputy head, Dr. Clark said, "Sinkovics and Alexanian are going to be put in your department because they do research." Cliff Howe was going to run Medicine. They do service work. They take care of diabetes and hypertension, in what's now the Department of Medicine.

There was also a guy here named Naguib Samaan, who did endocrinology. Sinkovics and Alexanian in my department were doing fine. Pediatrics in my department was doing fine. So we started work. Well, what did we have to do?

The first thing I had to do was get patients. The department now consists of Frei and Bobby Williams, his exec. He had also hired a gal for me; her name was Sharky Bagdasarian. It was these 3 people and me. What were we going to do? Well, there was no space. It had all been taken away. There were no beds. They'd all been taken away.

Dr. Leon Dmochowski was also involved in our recruitment. He was a scientist who did electron microscopy to look for viruses. He said, "I'll give you a lab and an office." So we shared Dmochowski's office. He had a little threesome on the fifth floor in the old building, and I had a little office and a little lab that was about 300 square feet. That's how we began.

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Chapter 12: The Lay of the Land: Developmental Therapeutics and MD Anderson in 1965