Chapter 02: R. Lee Clark’s Vision for MD Anderson: A Hospital, Research Institution, and a Setting Where Everyone Belonged

Chapter 02: R. Lee Clark’s Vision for MD Anderson: A Hospital, Research Institution, and a Setting Where Everyone Belonged



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In this chapter, Dr. Bowen talks about coming to work at MD Anderson, his reflections on the institution’s early days, and how MD Anderson developed both a medical and an academic character. He also discusses the institution’s organizational structure and explains why people, “Once they got to M. D. Anderson, they never wanted to work anyplace else.”



Publication Date



Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - Overview; Portraits; Leadership; On Leadership; Human Stories; Professional Path; The Researcher; Joining MD Anderson; MD Anderson Culture; Institutional Mission and Values; Understanding Cancer, the History of Science, Cancer Research; The History of Health Care, Patient Care; MD Anderson History; MD Anderson Snapshot; This is MD Anderson; Healing, Hope, and the Promise of Research


Louis J. Marchiafava, PhD:

Before you go further, I would like to clarify one point. At the beginning of the interview, when we began talking about cancer research, you said it was a golden age. Are you connecting that with the discoveries of virus-connected cancers?

James M. Bowen, PhD:

Well, yes, but even more important was the fact that two scientists, now Nobel laureates, named Watson and Crick, published in 1951, a paper proposing that they had worked out both the chemical composition and the structure of DNA. And the fact that viruses were basically little packages of genetic material, some DNA and some ribonucleic acid (RNA), suddenly brought virology, and the basic building blocks of both normal and abnormal cells together all at once. So, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the advances, for example, that Dr. Linus Pauling had just published in protein structure and synthesis, meant that suddenly, you could begin to study normal and abnormal cells not only at the tissue and organ level but at the cellular and even at the molecular level anymore. And that is basically what I meant by saying we were moving into a golden age.

Louis J. Marchiafava, PhD:

I just wanted to clarify that.

James M. Bowen, PhD:

I would like to stop at that point and move back a little bit from my own personal opportunity to come to M. D. Anderson, and talk about why the opportunity existed. When the founding people of M. D. Anderson began to propose and ultimately to secure legislation to create a cancer treatment hospital and an institute which would also try to advance our ability to understand and deal with cancer, and to educate others in those advancements that were made, when that began to be realized, they recruited Dr. Lee Clark to replace the opening and founding director, Dr. Bertner, and to bring this institution into reality. And Dr. Clark had an incredible mission. He understood that you could hire and train the best and the brightest to apply all of the known abilities to diagnose and treat cancer which, in those days, were predominantly surgery and radiotherapy. He knew that much had to be done with diagnosis, but he believed in his heart that the ultimate answer to understanding and controlling cancer lay in understanding the basics of why normal cells became cancerous and how cancer cells differed from normal cells, how they competed, how they functioned, and how they ultimately kill the organism that bore them, and he believed that that understanding . . . And one of the first things that I ever heard come out of the man's mouth, was "The answer to cancer is in DNA." And it was not just a slogan with Dr. Clark. It was an absolute conviction, something that I think that he believed had been laid on him to turn into reality during his lifetime. And what happened was his condition of coming and taking over the initial operation of M. D. Anderson was that M. D. Anderson not only be a treatment facility, but it also be allowed to develop a basic research program and an education program. And so, the institution was, at Dr. Clark's insistence, initially designated, not just named but designated, the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute, because Dr. Clark felt that it was essential that not only M. D. Anderson be a functioning hospital and clinic, but it should have from its first day of operation, an academic identity. So that its science and its education would be fully academically-recognized and accredited. Now, as events turned out, that acceptance and academic accreditation became an ongoing battle which Dr. Clark fought for his whole career, and which he inculcated into all of us who came to M. D. Anderson so that we fought the battle, too, because he felt that we had to constantly strive to prove and re-prove and to make known our academic identity, and I will come back to that point in a moment, if I may.

Louis J. Marchiafava, PhD:


James M. Bowen, PhD:

But in the meantime, the organizational structure of the M. D. Anderson Hospital and Tumor Institute was a pretty unusual one for that period of time. The only place that I had firsthand knowledge of a similar approach was at the Leukemia and Hematology Institute in France, an institute that Dr. Clark knew and understood pretty thoroughly, and I think that there was some patterning and some pioneering in Dr. Clark's initial approach. But what I found when I came to M. D. Anderson on that steamy July day of 1961, was a well-established institute that had begun in temporary quarters, but had moved to a wonderful new facility in the Texas Medical Center, and which contained geographically, a hospital, an administrative unit, a research institute, and both an educational component and a growing set of educational affiliations with other institutions -- with University of Texas at Austin, with the medical school in Galveston, and I learned that when Dr. Clark was beginning to build his institute, he borrowed faculty and staff from anywhere he could borrow them. From Galveston, from Austin, from Baylor, and from anyplace else. And the loan was always temporary, but those people never left M. D. Anderson! They stayed, most of them, for their entire careers. M. D. Anderson was not an institution where people came and went and came and went. They came but they never went. Like me. Once they got to M. D. Anderson, they never wanted to work anyplace else.

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Chapter 02: R. Lee Clark’s Vision for MD Anderson: A Hospital, Research Institution, and a Setting Where Everyone Belonged