Chapter 06: Updating MD Anderson's Pathology Laboratories

Chapter 06: Updating MD Anderson's Pathology Laboratories



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Dr. Becker first talks about the early phase of his research, beginning with a discussion of "classical pathology," the histology-based practice on which his molecular approach is grounded. He segues briefly into a description of what was required to modernize the "primitive" conditions of MD Anderson's laboratories when he joined the institution. (He was nicknamed "Cold Room Becker," because of his multiple requests for this essential facility.) He then talks about his research into cancer chemical carcinogenesis in the livers of animals. His laboratory made a significant contribution by observing alterations in cell division and identifying stochastic sequences. He notes that he also expanded research in the Pathology Department by bringing in fellows and faculty with pathology training.



Publication Date



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


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Building the Institution; MD Anderson Past; The Researcher; The Professional at Work

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


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

This is Tacey Ann Rosolowski interviewing

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

at the South Campus of Research Park of MD Anderson Cancer Center. This is our second session together. The date is May 17, 2012, and the time is just two minutes after . We just got caught up on the content of our last interview, and today I was hoping we would have an opportunity to talk about the research that you began to do when you set up your lab and initiated your research practice here at MD Anderson. Would you like to start talking about that, or would you like to talk about the vice presidency?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

No, before.  

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Okay. Let’s do the research.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

In summary, what I found when I arrived, which shows how skimpy information can be even if you think you’re really good at getting it out, was something along this line. As I’ve said before, the morphologic pathologists in the department were world-renowned based mainly on classical pathology, which I totally admired, and the fact that this institution offers the opportunity of studying large numbers of patients even with the rarest of tumors in a relatively short period of time because it acts as a magnet for patients from all over Texas, the region, the country, and, in the current era, more and more internationally, and that precedes outreach programs, the various satellites or whatever they’re called.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Can I ask you just for a second to define what you mean by classical pathology?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

I mean pathology based on histology, histologic analysis, smears, spindowns—called cytosmears, which came along a little later—morphologic pathology, upon which medicine has been founded and still depends even in the era of molecular medicine, because the initial observations are made at the scope. So one of the purposes in my coming here, according to Dr. Clark, was to bring into pathology—and hopefully leach out into other areas—the combination of that type of pathology with more laboratory-oriented techniques and approaches. And that I began to try to accomplish by requiring the modernization of laboratories here, which really were, in many cases, quite primitive. As one example that you might take as almost humorous, some of the areas designated as cold rooms, which are fundamental to laboratory research, were actually butcher boxes, the boxes or rooms that butchers kept meat in at a cold temperature. And I must say they were not only quite attractive because they had these beautiful wood panels but they were effective at a minimal level.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So how did that happen that there were—?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Because in the initial phases the people who purchased here—the people who okayed here—were not familiar with laboratory research, and they frequently would substitute more economical approaches. One of the big and really major obstacles was that many of the pipes that brought water to the laboratories were lead pipes or pipes that had metallic linings that leached out into the water and really inhibited research. The idea that we needed a new water system came as quite a shock to some of the people in the administrative and supportive areas. Not that they weren’t supportive, but it really was news to them. And in fact, the chief financial officer, who I remember with great joy really, Elmer Gilley, began to refer to me as “Cold Room Becker” because every time he saw me he claimed I had requested the installation of another cold room. But we got along super well. I will tell you in a little bit a story that characterizes the contract approach of Anderson in these early days of the mid-seventies. My own approach was to bring my research, which at that time was focused on chemical carcinogenesis—hepatocarcinogenesis in particular, the initiation of cancer in the liver of animals—in an attempt to understand why certain chemicals caused the progression to cancer, caused toxicity, and how this was related to human cancer not only in the liver but in other organs. And at that time, this was a hugely important area of research. It remains important, but it was truly at the fundamental level, and if my laboratory made any major contribution, I think it would be in the area of the alteration of cell division by these carcinogens and also the identification of what I would call the stochastic sequences that resulted from exposure to carcinogens, meaning that although many alterations were induced, the progression to cancer only occurred in a subpopulation of cells, and we focused on why that happened in the initial things.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You mentioned that this particular area of research—the hepatocarcinogenesis—was really fundamental. Why was that area so fundamental?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Because in the area of chemical carcinogenesis, from its very onset the changes induced by chemical agents in skin and liver were the focus of almost all the laboratories in the world. The first revelation of chemical carcinogenesis was in the 1800s when it was described that the chimney sweeps in England, who were young boys actually, developed a very high incidence of scrotal squamous cell cancer. And it turned out that was due to their constant exposure to the tar-like substances—the carcinogenic substances—caused by the burning of coal, and when they cleaned out the chimneys they were exposed to this constantly, and bathing was not very prevalent. And liver was the other [site] because when carcinogens were given to animals—mostly mixed in their food—liver cancer was the result in the majority of cases, so skin and liver were two of the major thrusts. In addition, I tried to instigate research expansion by bringing in, number one, a group of very excellent fellows who had pathology training and, in many cases, some research training and wanted more, and a few faculty members whose focus, while still pathology, really were more interested in their laboratory studies than in solely doing anatomical histology or histopathology. And we tried to increase the excellence and modernity of the supporting laboratories, the histopathology labs, and so forth. You have to understand that this was at the end of the great initial era instigated by Lee Clark, so it was actually quite amazing that this much had been accomplished, these labs had been built, and the attempt at research had been instigated while they built a clinical entity which was already world-renowned. It was at the end of the first era, and Lee Clark, who was a charismatic giant, was the sole contributor. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever met.

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Chapter 06: Updating MD Anderson's Pathology Laboratories