Chapter 01: A Pathway to Pathology With Inspiring Mentors

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Chapter 01: A Pathway to Pathology With Inspiring Mentors

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In this chapter, Dr. Becker talks about his early education and family background, his ties to New York City, and why he now considers himself a Texan. He notes the anti-Semitism that prevailed in many medical schools when he was applying (New York University was unusually non-restrictive) and the process that took him to New York University Medical College to work with pathologist Dr. Lewis Thomas.

Identifier

BeckerF_01_20121213_C01

Publication Date

12-13-2011

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Educational Path; Personal Background; Funny Stories; On Texas and Texans; Inspirations to Practice Science/Medicine; Influences from People and Life Experiences; Experiences of Injustice, Bias; Experiences re: Gender, Race, Ethnicity; Portraits; Character, Values, Beliefs, Talents

Transcript

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

All right, I’m Tacey Ann Rosolowski interviewing Dr. Frederick Becker, a molecular pathologist. Dr. Becker’s key role at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center was to serve as the first Vice President for Research from 1979 until his retirement in 1998. Dr. Becker also served as scientific director of the Tumor Institute until that date, as well as holding many other different positions, and serving many different roles. This interview is being conducted for the Making Cancer History Voices Oral History Project run by the Historical Resources Center at MD Anderson. The interview is taking place in Dr. Becker’s office on the South Campus of MD Anderson. This is our first interview session. Today is December 13th, 2011, and the time is 20 minutes after . Thank you, Dr. Becker, for devoting your time to this oral history interview, and to the project. This is a follow up to an interview conducted in -- or a series of interviews, I should say, conducted in 2001. And so I’d like to fill in some of the gaps in that interview. And one of the really glaring gaps was about your research. And before I get to that, or sort of leading up to that, I wanted to ask a few, kind of, preliminary background, but we’ll get very quickly to how you got into the area of molecular pathology.  

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

But for the record, please tell me where you were born, and when, and where you were raised.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yeah, I was born in New York City in 1931, and was raised in New York City, spent most of my early life, up to the age of 16, in Brooklyn in the famous, or infamous area known as Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay. Very family-oriented area. I went to a general academic high school named Abraham Lincoln High School, which plays a role in this story because, first, it’s amusing that [eventuating?] in a place as southern as Houston, Texas, I went to that school, with that name. Secondly, despite the fact that it was a non-specified academic high school, not a -- what they now call a magnet school, it had a very high academic reputation, and indeed, produced three Nobel Prize winners, two in medicine and one in physics. Which lead to an MD Anderson funny story. When I first got here, as chairman of pathology, I was introduced to the chairman of the Board of Regents. And for those who don’t understand the relationship, the Board of Regents is a heavenly body, appointed by the governor, with incredible power over the universities. And so when I came here, meeting, talking to, or whatever, a member of the Board of Regents was pretty much like talking to a heavenly emissary.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Who was this person?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

His name was Jack Josey, a wonderful man, who became a long term friend, and whose family I still count as close friends. And he was a great enthusiast. And when he heard that I went to a small academic high school that had three Nobel Prize winners, he rushed over to the then chancellor of the university, dragging me with him, and said, this is Fred Becker, our new chairman of pathology at the Anderson, he went to a little high school in Brooklyn that has three Nobel Prize winners, how many does the University of Texas [have]? And the answer, at that time, was none. I digress to say we have many now, very distinguished. And Jack said to the then chancellor, how many does the University of Texas have, and the answer was none. And I remonished Jack Josey, because as I said, I will never get a raise. (laughter) OK, that was my introduction to the MD. OK.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Do you -- was there something about being raised in New York -- I mean, I’m asking you because you have -- you were living part of the year in New York, and I’m wondering do you consider yourself a typical New Yorker, and is there anything about that mindset that you bring to your work?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Everything.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Tell me what.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

First of all, I consider myself a Texan [and a New Yorker]. One of the things that you learn about Texas, and one of the things that I’ve insisted upon, having hired zillions of people at all levels for this institution is, that it is extremely important to a Texan that you appreciate and enjoy being here. It’s a little bit like going into the military. The worst thing you can do when you go into the military is tell anybody who’s really military that you resent being there, that you were dragged there, that you miss the old place. You can miss it a little bit. But if you're going to become a Texan, live here and flourish here, you owe people here the courtesy of telling them that you’re enjoying it. And if you’re not, go away. If you do, you will find Texans to be among the most generous, courteous, warm people you have ever met. And there is one difference between here and, say, the northeast, for example. If someone says to you in the northeast, oh, you like to ski, you ought to come to our place some day, they don’t mean it at all, and you never go. If someone in Texas says oh, you like to fish, you ought to come to our place, he means it, and they expect you there that weekend. And so that’s a rule to remember.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Was that something that you discovered right upon moving here?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Everything is what I’ve discovered.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah. But right upon moving here?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Even though, when my wife and I moved here...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And that was in 1976?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yes. Not only did we move from an apartment on 75th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City, we moved here with a small child, very few friends, although a number of academic colleagues that I knew well, as I’ll tell you, and some grave concerns. Because the lifestyle was geometrically opposite ours. My wife was a former premiere ballerina in the movies, show business, given it up many years before.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Can I interrupt you just to ask your wife’s name, for the record? Your wife’s name?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

As in, the previous life? No, I mean, before we were married.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Well...

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Mary Ellen.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Mary Ellen.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Um...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And your daughter’s name is [Bronwyn?], if I remember.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Bronwyn Elizabeth. I’ll show you a picture of her later.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I didn’t mean to interrupt you...

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

No, no, I don’t mind. Nothing stops me. Someone said they stopped the blitzkrieg easier than they stopped me. In any case...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You said there was one thing that was similar between Texas and the northeast?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

A desire to excel. Texans want their institutions to excel, they are enormously proud. They probably have a greater knowledge of their own institutions than most people in New York. Where the institutions are more isolated in terms of who runs them, who participates, because of the enormity of the population. Here, people are really aware of their institutions. And they want the best, they want the best, there’s no question. OK. So let’s go back.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Yeah, I was wondering, was anyone else in your family involved in the sciences? How did...

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Everybody, a lot of people, yeah. And especially in medicine. For example, my oldest cousin, Gerald Becker, was a brilliant surgeon, pediatric surgeon. One of the first accepted to the Harvard program in pediatric cardiology surgery. Became the head of pediatric surgery at Mount Sinai in New York, Long Island Jewish, North Shore Hospital, and was a role model for everyone in the family. His brother, Stanley, was the chief forensic pathologist of New Jersey. Stanley’s daughter, Pamela, is a brilliant oncologist at the University of Washington, and it goes on like that. It’s quite a family.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So how did your own gifts and interests in the sciences first show themselves?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

You don’t have time.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I don’t have time? All right.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

You’ll have to buy my autobiography, which I’m not planning to write. (laughter) I was always interested in sciences, always.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Was there a moment when you knew, this is where I’ve got to make my mark?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Well, it was just always there. It was just always there. When I was in college, I went to Columbia College. For reasons that are diffuse and maybe personal, I ended up as a pre-med, pre-law, pre-creative writing major. And I scored second on the pre-law (laughter), I was invited to ride in the (inaudible), and barely -- well, I shouldn’t say that, and got into medical school. That was an era when there were tremendous restrictions on who got into what medical school.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I wasn’t aware of that.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

You’re joking.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

No.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

No?

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

I’m not joking.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Up through the 1950’s, and into the early 1960’s, even in New York City, the majority of medical schools would not take anyone of color.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, OK.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Wait. Very few women, a modicum of acceptable Catholics, and very few Jews. In New York City. My own medical school, Columbia PNS, was totally restrictive. And I -- you can read my biography for funny stories about my interview at Columbia. And I went, proudly, to New York University, which was not restrictive in any of those categories, a fact of which makes me very loyal. Anyhow, let’s...

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Why weren't they restrictive?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Because the people who ran that institution felt it was wrong.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

OK, so it was policy, basically?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yeah, of course it was policy. It was policy not to accept at Columbia. Cornell, Cornell was called the South of the North because almost all of its faculty was from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Oh yeah, my president, Mickey [Charles A. LeMaistre, MD [Oral History Interview]], who chose me as Vice President, was from Alabama, and ended up on the faculty -- on the house staff of Cornell. And then, also Rockefeller, and so on. One of the very distinguished figures in American medicine. OK, back. OK, so I graduated Abraham Lincoln. I went to Columbia College, which was then a very small all-male college at a time when a number of the people in my class were World War II veterans, quite different. And then I was accepted to New York University School of Medicine, one of the blessings of my life.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You started in 1952 there?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Right

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

OK.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Where the dean said to me, instead of going up to Boston to do a fellowship as a student, there is a new professor of pathology named Lewis Thomas [MD], and I think you’d like him a lot. And naturally, being a medical student, [I] thought -- I thought he was lying to me, but I got along very well with the dean, who thought I should be a humor writer instead of a doctor. I said I hope that was not a critique of my work. But I made him laugh, and no one else did.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You’re making me laugh.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

And I went up and met this handsome, erudite, brilliant, imaginative, creative man named Lewis Thomas. And instantly became his student fellow, and I -- then, having finished my [development at NYU], I went to Harvard, to Boston City Hospital, the Harvard service, and since this won't be in there anywhere, I was the first NYU student accepted to that Harvard service. So in a way, my oldest cousin and I were the two NYU students who broke certain barriers at Harvard. And that service was one of the most highly thought of academic and research medical services in the world. And they have produced [scoodles?] of chairmen, and deans, and prize winners, and so on. It was a great experience. Since you’re here to be amused, I will tell you on the last day of my internship, you are supposed to receive the new intern and introduce him to the patients. And this tall gentleman, young man with brown hair and brown shoes walked in, [ ]-- he said, “Are you the outgoing intern,” and I said, “Yes.” I said I’m Dr. Becker, originally from New York City. And he said, I’m Walter Menninger, Jr. And I said, let me guess, Topeka, Kansas. And it was. That’s the level of that internship. (laughter) Yes, yes. Other funny stories are reserved for parties and wild events about my internship.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Tell me...

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

At that -- go ahead.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Oh, I was going to ask you about what made you click so immediately with Lewis Thomas? What was it about his -- him, as a researcher?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Well, first of all, if you -- there are certain people in the world who are called -- should be called golden people, golden. Lewis Thomas was golden. Everywhere he went, and everything he did had a golden aura around it. When he was finishing in the South Pacific with a research group in World War II, one of his colleagues said, you know, Lew, I’m going to be the chief resident in pediatrics at Hopkins, what are you doing? Lew Thomas said I’m giving thought to a couple of jobs. And this fellow said look, I could pull some strings, and you could probably get a job in pediatrics as a resident. And when this chap arrived at Hopkins, he found Lew Thomas had been given an associate professorship without training.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughter) Yeah.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Golden.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Talk about golden, yeah.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

He just was so intelligent, and so creative, he had one of the most fertile minds in the world. To prolong that, no one from NYU had ever gotten into Hopkins internship. And I applied, and one of the people who interviewed me was thumbing through my file, and I had quite a file, but that didn’t mean anything. And he said, “Oh my god, you’ve worked with Lew, don’t worry about a thing.” If you read his books, and there are many of them, I mention in a couple of them, you just realize you’re talking about someone who was so creative that if you enjoy creativity, if you didn’t challenge creativity, you just wanted to sit at his feet. I was in his office when Sputnik went up. And he said, “Oh wow, isn't that wonderful, we have a god now.” And I said, what? He said, we have a god, it’s omnipotent and omniscient. It came from his mouth like pearls. I will tell you one funny story [ ]. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughter)

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

When he became dean at NYU, I went to the graduation ceremony, and I went up and sat with all of these very proud parents, and listened to him, and what he started to talk about was his theory of universal communication. That the cities on the world were like ganglia, and one day, we’d learned to communicate instantly from one city to another. And that might let us communicate with similar ganglia in the universe. And [a student’s] mother in front of me, proud mother of a graduating student said to the father, that’s what he’s been teaching them? (laughter) And I said, leave it to him. I guess he didn’t want the kid to be a galactic neurologist. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughter) Or an analogical thinker.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yeah, yeah. (laughter) That was him.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Hmm.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

He picked out brilliant people, he saluted brilliant people, he was just brilliant. He was not the person to choose the color of the façade of a new building, or the pencils. He was the guy to build a galactic neurological institute on Mars, and that’s it. So I was blessed, thrice, blessed. Because, in the middle of my internship at Harvard, he created the first research oriented pathology fellowship in the country, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, in which we, who would take part in it, would get training in pathology, he was then the chairman of pathology at NYU, and also work in that laboratory of one of the many brilliant unbelievable scientists he brought to NYU.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So how did that experience affect you at that time? What did you get from it?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Everything. Everything. First of all, I had a remarkable affinity for pathology, having tried to avoid autopsies as a medical student. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughter) Did you really?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yes. (laughter)

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

(laughter)

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

I have what’s called the eye. I have a very quick eye for pathology. I learned it very well and very thoroughly, even though my formal training wasn’t very extensive, because I was doing research. And since he had brought to the Department of Pathology at NYU, some of the most outstanding young scientists, unknowns, he could pick them out, we were surrounded by extraordinary research. An example, it’s more to give you an amusement, you need it in your life, one day he said he had hired so and so, a new immunologist assistant professor, and he wanted me to meet him. I was then a, I guess, a resident fellow, or was I a fellow? Whatever. So I went down and knocked on the door, and this gentleman said come in. It was a little rotund gentleman, and he was bleeding a mouse from the eye with a capillary tube, and I kind of did a double take, and who are you, and I told him, and he said I’m so and so. And he said would you like to learn to bleed a mouse from the eye? And I said why would I want to? I was always a freshie. And he said, because you can do it every day. And I said no sir, I have a hobby. (laughter) And walked out. And as I walked out, I met a young [researcher] [ ] one of my best friends, now the Beeson Professor of Medicine at Yale, and he said did you meet Dr. [Benacerraf?]? And I said yes, I don’t understand why Dr. Thomas, who’s never wrong, thinks he’s going to be one of the great ones, all he does is bleed mice. Well, he bled them to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Benacerraf did. [ ]

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

What was his Nobel Prize in?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Immunology.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Immunology?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

[] Yeah. He just died at 90. Fantastic man.

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Chapter 01: A Pathway to Pathology With Inspiring Mentors

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