M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

Throughout the years, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has undergone many changes. Although the hospital no longer resides at the Old Baker Estate, the tenacity of a few influential men in the beginning made what was once a vision, into a reality. In particular, Bertner and Clark's hard work brought cancer the publicity it needed for millions of dollars in cancer fighting funds to come to Texas. Today, M.D. Anderson and the Texas Medical Center remain a hub of innovation, drawing from bright minds everywhere.

Many people would not associate cotton, People’s Bank, and a frugal, but witty personality as having anything to do with oncology. However, these aspects served as tools that Monroe Dunaway Anderson used to build up a great fortune under his name. The growth of the American economy in the 1800’s was largely due to cotton fields, so Anderson moved to Texas to reap the benefits of the booming business. The financial expertise that he gained working for People’s Bank, along with the diligence that is required to live a frugal lifestyle as a multimillionaire, allowed Anderson’s personal assets to persist. Unfortunately, that same constancy could not be said about his health, as it was in rapid decline. Always careful, Anderson weighed out the pros and cons of his predicament. He had kidney disease, congestive heart failure, and no children who could inherit his assets that now surpassed $19 million. After deciding that the best idea would be to transfer the money to a charitable trust, M.D. Anderson Foundation was born. [1]

Anderson’s wish was for his foundation to represent service to mankind in the highest sincerity possible. The elusive nature of cancer is what drew John Freeman, a member of the M.D. Anderson Foundation board, and Ernst W. Bertner, a Houston Physician who offered medical advice to Anderson in life, to explore the idea of a state cancer hospital. During Bertner’s time at Johns Hopkins, he experienced the perils of cancer first-hand. Many cancer patient’s lives slipped from his grasp, conveying a hopeless void of secrets that only research could begin to fill. A medical center would carry out Anderson’s wish by serving these vulnerable patients. In addition, it would serve the Houston area by providing economic diversity and growth beyond that of oil and cotton. [2]

In 1941, the Senate and House of Representatives approved the bill for the creation of the Texas State Cancer Hospital and Division of Cancer Research. As anticipated, the purpose of the hospital would include both patient care and research. Later that year, members of the M.D. Anderson foundation lobbied the UT Board of Regents to approve placement of the hospital in Houston, with the name of M.D. Anderson Hospital for Cancer Research of the University of Texas. To make the offer difficult to refuse, the foundation agreed to match the appropriation of five hundred thousand dollars with a gift of five hundred thousand dollars, temporary housing, and land for a permanent home. After the board approved the proposition, the M.D. Anderson Foundation bought the old Baker estate formerly known as “the Oaks.” Bertner acted as a part-time director with no pay, and he worked to bring the hospital to life. [3]

The creation of a state cancer hospital was not an easy task, in part because of World War II taking place. The economy adjusted to one under the influence of war, with building materials becoming expensive and less than prevalent. Rats covered the Baker estate property, and fleas made their homes in the laboratories. Eventually, however, M.D. Anderson took in its very first cancer patient in 1944, a man with Lymphoma. [4]

The next mission for M.D. Anderson was to meet the demands of the times. Lee Clark, a man who worked in San Antonio at the School of Aviation Medicine prior to becoming director of M.D. Anderson, recognized this. With the end of World War II brought fresh medical knowledge and the creation of new subspecialties in various disciplines. Medical schools began to embrace education as a result, and residencies and fellowships developed as additional training grounds for newly graduated physicians. To take part in this endeavor, lobbying of the state legislature took place to make the University of Texas Postgraduate School of Medicine a part of M.D. Anderson in 1948. With the expansion of new knowledge came the desire to treat children. In 1947, M.D. Anderson had only three child patients under its care, and the Baker estate, with its bland, wood, exterior, was not properly suited to treat more children. Again, the vision of a new home was brought to the attention of key politicians that could help M.D. Anderson’s cause. In 1949, architectural building plans began to make an appearance. The Korean war, and Clark’s taste for pink marble were not a good mix in terms of budget. With construction materials having rose in price, raising money became a collective effort for Texans. Known for being quick to lend a helping hand, Texas members of the Boy and Girl Scouts, chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, etc. began to raise money with the hope that curing cancer was possible. The money was collected, and the new hospital was built. Additional money was raised to furnish and equip the new building. With its Georgia Etowah pink marble exterior, M.D. Anderson outwardly displayed the peace and hope of one day controlling cancer. Finally, in 1954, ambulances began moving patients into the new hospital. [5], [6], [7]

With “The Pink Palace” up and running, it is not surprising that it took tenacity, the art of persuasion, and knowing the right politicians to form what was once an idea into a fully functioning hospital and medical center. Similarly, it is not surprising that with new growth comes the ever-growing influence of politics on science. The public’s idea of cancer in the 1950’s was built on “images of blood and excrement,” and people who had cancer were considered dirty people, rather than people who were sick with a disease. Cancer soon became involved in the great American pastime when Babe Ruth was afflicted with throat cancer. The public’s views on cancer caused journalists and the media to keep the diagnosis a secret. Clark, still clinging to ideas of peace, pink, and hope, disapproved of the so called “cancer culture.” The groundbreaking research on cancer would mean virtually nothing if the people would not go in for cancer screenings for fear of being stigmatized. When rectal and colon cancer struck Professional Athlete Mildred “Babe” Zaharias in 1953, she did not let the fear of stigmatization stop her from telling the press about the destructive impact that cancer had on her rectum, anus, and colon. Journalists saw “Babe’s” renowned success in a variety of sports and portrayed her cancer diagnosis as another sports contest that she could beat. While journalists heavy influence on the public’s idea of cancer could be seen throughout the 50’s, “Babe’s” opportunity to speak on her disease provided some relief against the awful stigmatization of cancer. The public was beginning to understand that cancer was a disease that could affect anyone, of any age, regardless of fame. [8]

Cancer research has not slowed down since M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s inception in 1941. In 2011, Former Governor Rick Perry announced the establishment of the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The purpose of the institute would be to transfer current scientific research into applicable therapies. In this way, researchers and scientists with clinical trial experience would combine their knowledge and resources to create influential medicines, thereby combating the low success rate in cancer drug development. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CRIT) was formed in 2007, and has funded over 350 awards since 2011, with matched funds contributing a grand total of $870 million for “cancer research, commercialization, and prevention.” The influx of cancer fighting funds has provided incentive for top researchers and scientists to make their way to Texas in support of the cause. As Perry stated, Texas has had its “sights set on wiping out cancer for quite some time,” and it all started with Freeman and Bertner’s discussions “over lunches downtown and at the Rice Hotel” in the late 1930’s. [9], [10], [11], [12]



Dr. James S. Olson Oral Interview
I had the great honor of interviewing Dr. James S. Olson. To name a few of his accomplishments, he is a historian and an academic and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author. Dr. Olson started cancer treatment at M.D. Anderson in the 1980's. As a...
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