Chapter 02: Stories: The Pathology Department in 1976 and MD Anderson as a Texas Institution

Title

Chapter 02: Stories: The Pathology Department in 1976 and MD Anderson as a Texas Institution

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Description

In this chapter, Dr. Becker discusses the Department of Pathology at MD Anderson when he arrived in 1976 and his impressions of the MD Anderson President, Dr. R. Lee Clark.

Identifier

BeckerFF_01_20080619_C02

Publication Date

6-19-2008

Publisher

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

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Building the InstitutionResearch; MD Anderson Culture; On Texas and Texans; Joining MD Anderson; Personal Background; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot

Transcript

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Something like that. And I was shown the physical plant, I was shown what was pathology, I was given a sketch of what I would inherit, et cetera. I met with a number of the people in the department, and those people were very consistent in the sense that many of them were world-renown anatomic pathologists with specialties in a variety of disciplines. None of them did any research in a laboratory whatsoever.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

They just did clinical?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Yeah, no, that was perfectly all right. Interestingly enough, when I asked one of them -- there's a tendency of people to complain to potential chairmen. I mean, I've had that happen a dozen times. When I finally asked one, "Well, why do you stay? You're office is terrible, you tell me, the support is awful, and so on." The answer was quite consistent, and that was that no where in the world would they have the kind of material –meaning, to a pathologist, pathologic specimens -- that they had here, and therefore the opportunity to study them and to publish them. There were some indications they were quite concerned about me as a possible chairman because I came from the most academic research-oriented department in the country. That was NYU Department of Pathology. Albeit --

Lesley Williams Brunet:

The most competitive -- what did you say -- in the country?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Probably the most outstanding research department -- research-oriented department. It was a department that had a large number of people in it who did no pathology; they just did research. It managed to produce four or five members of the National Academy and the Nobel Prize in addition. But there were also pathologists who could compete with anybody in the world in their knowledge of pathology. And it was a very exciting place. I then interviewed with the search committee, which was made up of a lot of people who were here practically all their lives. They came as fellows and never left.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Do you recall who they were?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Oh yeah, I recall a number of them, but there's -- Jose Trujillo was one of them. The other one that was the greatest fun for me was Taylor Wharton, because Taylor Wharton -- albeit a superb gynecologist, oncologist -- was probably one of the people -- probably still is one of the people -- who personifies the non-Texan's image of a Texan. He was tall, warm, reticent, and extraordinarily dubious that someone of my ilk would want to be here, that I could adjust to the Texas way of life. We got into a large discussion of my image of what I thought Houston would be in the years to come. Well, I said, "Right now it's flat, everything's one-story high, and I believe that before we would pass on, we're going to see tall buildings all over Houston." Then he said, "Impossible." He later told me in an anecdote publically at an award's ceremony that he went to see Dr. Clark and said, "Dr. Clark, this candidate, this Becker, is extraordinarily smart, and very verbal, but he won't fit in here. He never sits down. He's too active." No, no, now that's -- and we always laughed about that, Taylor and I, in years to come because in years to come, he claimed that I was one of the people who carried Clark's image forward better than almost anybody who'd ever been here, and I took that as a giant compliment. So we became great friends.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I'm hoping to talk of him.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Bring a beer. The --

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Zimmerman wants to do it in a bar too.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Zimmerman -- well that's more stories than you can reach today.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

So you --

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Much to my surprise, they offered me the job.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Well now why would you be surprised?

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Because --

Lesley Williams Brunet:

You're not --

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

-- up until then, the institution was very limited in the backgrounds of people who came here. I'm a New York Jewish person. There were no such human beings here except Mel Samuels, who's a brilliant person who actually created the therapy that later Lance Armstrong got and cured him. There was a reputation here of it being very southern and very restrictive. There were people who weren't from Texas -- Bob Hickey, J Freireich [oral history interview], Tom Frei -- but it had a very restrictive image. Hm?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I was going to say Gutterman [oral history interview], but he's not from New York.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

No, but he was not at a level at that time of leadership. And in fact, if you read the book that Dr. Olson's writing, which I read, Dr. Clark talking to the head of Sloan Kettering Memorial and asking him how could he enlarge the image of the Anderson said, "You've got to stop" -- I forget which person at the Sloan Kettering told him this -- "You've got to stop. You've got to bring in people of other dimensions." It's considered a very WASPy, narrow, southern place.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Male, too.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Hm?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Male.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

Oh, yeah, male. Of course. Of course.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Well it was the medical center.

Frederick F. Becker, MD:

I'll get back to the fact that I was first to ever appoint a chairman of a depart-- a female chairman of department -- whose name is Margaret Kripke [oral history interview]. In any cas,e they asked me to come back, but the then director, Bob Hickey and his wife, came to visit us in our apartment in New York, which is an amusing anecdote because Dr. Hickey's wife, Rose, was a very well and respected sculptress. She walked into our beautiful apartment in New York at 75th Street and Madison Avenue, and her first comment was, "You're going to leave this to come to Houston? You must be crazy!" At which point Bob Hickey said, "Can I have a martini?" (laughs) He felt he made a tactical error in bringing Rose along. So we came back for a visit, and that visit was characterized by two incidents -- positive incidents. The first was that another acquaintance of mine was the head of the graduate school, and his name was Al Knudson [oral history interview]. Al's reputation as a geneticist thinker and human being was universally at the highest level. He did something very clever with his wife. I almost said "at that time wife" because they divorced soon after. That was he gave a dinner party for us in which everything served at the dinner party came from Texas. All the fruits, the vegetables, the meats, et cetera. Not the wine because at that time, wine hadn't come to Houston -- to Texas -- which it has now, and I drink wine from the Becker vineyard, which is not mine unfortunately, but I'm supportive of it. And there's a wine called Becker Vineyard Iconoclast, and I drink that wine. It seems so appropriate. And we were impressed by the fact that that was all available here. And then we went to a dinner party that the Hickeys gave at which point Dr. Clark, the gorgeous Dr. Clark, came over, took my beautiful wife by her arm, and led her away. My wife had had an interesting life up until she met me because she was a renowned ballerina at by the age of 18 and had lived in London, and New York, and Hollywood, and had been in the movies and in television -- none of which she was very thrilled about. She's quite happy being my wife and having a little baby. She spoke to Dr. Clark for about ten minutes, and she came back and she looked at me -- and this is a woman who is quite cynical and certainly about so-called famous people and celebrity -- and she said, "Dynamite. That man is dynamite." So we had many discussions. I looked at a couple of other chairs, and then accepted the chair here. There's two aspects of that acceptance -- or three. First, the people in the Northeast felt that I was playing an elaborate practical joke on them. That I was really not going to take the job; that I was just teasing them. Second, one of my dearest friends, a former fellow and later quite famous research pathologist, said, "You'll be lynched within one month. They're going to kill you." Third, I was given an enormous book filled with Texas jokes at a dinner in farewell. My wife and I decided that this was pretty much like an adventure, and that if Neil Armstrong could land on the moon, we could move to Houston, Texas. Actually later we realized he was better prepared to land on the moon than we were to move to Houston, Texas. But that's another story.

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Chapter 02: Stories: The Pathology Department in 1976 and MD Anderson as a Texas Institution

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