Chapter 13: Developmental Therapeutics in the 1970s: A Place of Optimism


Chapter 13: Developmental Therapeutics in the 1970s: A Place of Optimism



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In this chapter, Dr. Benjamin notes that the MD Anderson was intellectually challenging and exciting when he arrived in 1974. His colleagues, he says, had "incredible optimism that we were going to make a difference." He explains that since not much was known about cancer at that time, they did not feel they had to abide by accepted standards of care and were always looking to improve care. In the Department of Developmental Therapeutics (DT), in particular, each faculty member had patient care responsibilities but their primary purpose was to improve care and each patient was part of an experiment. He also notes that DT was an insular department. He sketches the history of the founding of DT and its relationship to the Department of Medicine.



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 - MD Anderson Past; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot; Institutional Mission and Values; MD Anderson Culture; Institutional Politics; Controversy


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Okay. Well, at the end of our last session together, we were talking about—we got you here to MD Anderson, you were talking about making that move and kind of gave a sketch of kind of what you were doing when you arrived. So I’d like to go back to that moment and ask you kind of for your impressions of the institution when you got here, what was the institution like, what was the climate like for research, what was the environment you suddenly became immersed in?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

So the environment was very much intellectually challenging and stimulating and exciting, and there was an incredible optimism among most of my colleagues that we were going to make a difference, and it was all within the framework of Developmental Therapeutics. I think the basic premise was that we didn’t know enough about how to treat cancer to consider anything as the standard that couldn’t be improved, and there were always challenges of how do you move the bar further. It was a relatively small department, and although we clearly had patient-care responsibilities, our purpose was to try to figure out better ways to do things. So essentially every patient was part of an experiment to try to improve things.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Can I just clarify something? When you were describing the qualities of that atmosphere, intellectually challenging and this optimism, was that something very special in Developmental Therapeutics, or was that in the institution as a whole?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

I don’t know the answer to that question because Developmental Therapeutics was pretty much an insular department. We had our own patients that we treated with all sorts of problems. I mean, certainly we interacted with surgeons when there were problems that required surgery and radiation when there were problems requiring radiation, but I don’t think there was as much of the interdisciplinary approach to treating all patients as developed later, because as treatments got better, they were more able to be integrated into what might be considered mainstream.There was another Department of Medicine. There were some interactions between the two departments, but those interactions, at least initially, were pretty antagonistic.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Why was that?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Unclear. That’s the way people are.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Was it kind of territory wars?

Robert Benjamin, MD:

Yeah. Yeah, I think it was. There was a Department of Medicine that was here that had been established before Developmental Therapeutics ever got here, and Developmental Therapeutics was basically brought in as a new department to concentrate on the research that would try to change what had been done in the past and make it better. I don’t know because I wasn’t here when that started, but I’ve seen similar issues in another institution where I was. It’s always hard to have two different departments that do sort of the same thing not necessarily the same way, and where neither is required to get along with the other. So each one always tried to push its own agenda, and there were always considerations of, I think, some threat on the part of those in the more traditional Department of Medicine felt from the new group of “crazy people” that had come in in Developmental Therapeutics.

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Chapter 13: Developmental Therapeutics in the 1970s: A Place of Optimism