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Make No Small Plans: M. D. Anderson Cancer Center Endeavors to Make Cancer History
M. D. Anderson

May, 2009

"I had cancer. I have cancer. I will always have cancer."

So begins Professor James S. Olson's richly detailed chronicle of the birth and growth of The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center to international eminence. Blending the roles of historian and narrator, Olson recounts an epic tale of vision, courage and frontier spirit that shaped the hospital, influenced the course of modern oncology and offered hope to those who too often had none.

Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center (Johns Hopkins University Press) breaks new ground in the genre. More than a chronological retelling, it combines Texas-sized disputes, medical mystery and discovery, cultural conflict and social change. Olson, a Pulitzer-nominated historian and author of Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History, documents M. D. Anderson's rise to national and global prominence against all odds - scientific and political.

At every step Olson weaves history with personal journeys. Among the most compelling is his own experience with two difficult forms of cancer that required treatment ten times for primary tumors or recurrences, including the amputation of his left forearm. "The reader should know that M. D. Anderson has been a part of my life since 1981 when I... entrusted to them my future. Time and again, the institution redeemed that trust," said Olson.

History's Oldest Medical Puzzle - Victory, Defeat and an Elusive Enemy

Not so long ago, a cancer diagnosis often meant a death sentence. What treatments did exist were largely radical and debilitating. In Making Cancer History, Olson illuminates why cancer's complexities have long bedeviled researchers and physicians, unraveling the biological origin of cancer, its earliest treatments and investigation in ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine and the modern advances that comprise the oncology field as it is known today.

Due to these early contributions and huge leaps in the understanding of cancer made by M. D. Anderson and its peer institutions over the decades, the five-year survival rate for all forms of cancer combined has risen to 66 percent, more than double what it was 50 years ago. An American diagnosed with cancer today is very likely to join the growing ranks of survivors. Even when not curable, more cancers are managed as effectively as other chronic, life-long diseases.

"I am fortunate that my life and career have spanned many of the major medical, technological and research developments presented in Making Cancer History," said John Mendelsohn, M. D., president of M. D. Anderson. "With remarkable truth and clarity, Jim has captured the stubborn spirit, heroic attempts, colossal setbacks and glittering achievements we have faced - as a nation and an institution - in cancer care and research. This is no dry institutional history, but a record of the will and courage to confront and conquer cancer."

From the Wild West to the Pink Palace

From radical surgery, the ability to harness the force of radiation to kill disease and the dawning of the age of chemotherapy up to the discovery of DNA and immunology, Olson explores the evolution of cancer treatment parallel to M. D. Anderson's own quest to bring scientific discoveries to the clinic as rapidly as possible.

Founded as the anchor of the now-renowned Texas Medical Center, the largest of its kind in the world, Olson credits its three presidents with forging M. D. Anderson's distinctive culture, ability to attract world-class specialists, commitment to innovation, multidisciplinary approach to patient care and leadership role in national policy.

Struck by the presence of Georgia Etowa Pink marble on a drive through Atlanta, R. Lee Clark, M.D., dreamed of moving M. D. Anderson from its home in converted Army barracks to a "pink palace" that would serve as a "beacon of peace and hope" for cancer patients and survivors. Today, the Clark Clinic is named for M. D. Anderson's first president, who led the institution for 32 years.

Charles A. "Mickey" LeMaistre, M. D., was appointed in 1962 to the first U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health, picked up the mantle in 1978 and served for 18 years. He was at the center of a powerful public health movement that awakened the nation to cancer prevention and instilled a culture of survivorship at M. D. Anderson.

Mendelsohn, a noted scientist, Olson points out, has earned a respect bordering on devotion, and expanded institution's mission to eliminate cancer not only in Texas, but also in the nation and the world. He has been the driving force behind global research collaborations to exchange knowledge and further accelerate the pace of treatment since 1996.

Chasing the Devil - Cancer in the Context of American History

Throughout Making Cancer History, Olson presents scientific discovery under way at M. D. Anderson against the backdrop of American cultural and socioeconomic realities. Both illustrious and dark moments in the institution's history, many of which mirrored the hotbed issues of America's turbulent political past, unfold for the reader. Professing "I am by trade an historian bound to cast a clear eye on the past," Olson does not shy away from M. D. Anderson's resistance to racial desegregation or how institutional leaders wooed Soviet Union scientists in the midst of the Cold War.

Lesser-known elements of M. D. Anderson's past are also uncovered, such as the dramatic opening story of University of Texas Longhorn defensive back Freddie Steinmark, who was treated at M. D. Anderson for Ewing's sarcoma. Steinmark drew the attention of President Richard Nixon, who, noting that no American family was untouched by the disease, declared a "war on cancer" in 1971, shortly after Steinmark's leg was amputated. When the AIDS epidemic arrived in the early 1980s - striking fear in physicians and patients alike - M. D. Anderson was the first hospital in the Texas Medical Center to treat patients with the disease which often led to cancer, especially Kaposi's sarcoma.

Over the course of eight years, poring over nearly half a million documents and hundreds of interviews, Olson's greatest hope is that Making Cancer History "does justice to my profession and to The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, where my future will unfold."

Since 1944, M. D. Anderson has treated more than 800,000 patients. One of only 40 comprehensive cancer centers designated by the National Cancer Institute, it holds the distinction of being number one on the U.S. News & World Report ranking of cancer institutions for four of the past six years - and has been ranked in the top two since the survey started in 1990. It has earned the reputation as the world leader in knowledge-based patient care and translational research - applying science to improvements in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer.

Making Cancer History: Disease and Discovery at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

By James S. Olson

Johns Hopkins University Press

Pub. Date: May 7, 2009

Price: $35.00

ISBN: 13:978-0801890567

Making Cancer History's Central Character: Author James S. Olson

James Olson first walked through M. D. Anderson's doors in 1981 as a patient. Over nearly 28 years, he's been treated for primary tumors or recurrences ten times, resulting in multiple brain surgeries, rounds of chemotherapy and radiation therapy and the amputation of his left forearm.

In an especially poignant moment in Making Cancer History, Olson and "Judy, my wife and best friend" confront the imminent surgery to remove his left hand. The reader is provided with a passionate, intimate and heart-rending glimpse of their personal struggle living with cancer, his conflicting relationship with undergoing treatment and his will to live.

Olson draws on more than half a million institutional letters, books, manuscripts and journals and interviews with hundreds of physicians, scientists, government officials, national leaders, nurses and employees in Making Cancer History. Battling cancer and ensuing devastating bouts of depression, Making Cancer History took Olson nearly eight years to complete.

Olson, Distinguished Professor of History at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, is the author, co-author, editor and co-editor of more than 30 books, with topics ranging from cancer to John Wayne. His most recent book - Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer and History, also published by The Johns Hopkins University Press - was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History and won the 2002 History of Science Category Award from the Association of American Publishers. His book, John Wayne American, was nominated for the 1955 Pulitzer Prize in biography.

M. D. Anderson Firsts

From emerging new treatments and technologies to patient services and support programs, M. D. Anderson is on the leading edge of cancer research, patient care, education and prevention. Here are just a few "firsts" that Making Cancer History spotlights.


  • M. D. Anderson was named one of the first three Comprehensive Cancer Centers under the terms of the National Cancer Act of 1971.
  • M. D. Anderson clinicians began delivering care in multidisciplinary centers in which surgeons, chemotherapists, radiation therapists and others see the patient and decide upon treatment jointly. Known as multidisciplinary care, this team approach is widely accepted as a best practice for cancer and other diseases.
  • A team of M. D. Anderson diagnostic radiologists, led by Robert Egan, M.D., developed mammography technology and showed that mammography can detect breast cancer at early, highly curable stages.
  • Renilda Hilkemeyer, the director of nursing at M. D. Anderson from 1955 to 1978, revolutionized the specialty care of patients with cancer and is recognized as the pioneer of oncology nursing.
  • Eleanor Montague, M.D., was instrumental in showing that many women with breast cancer could be treated successfully without undergoing the once-routine radical mastectomy. Her milestone reports published in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that lumpectomy combined with radiation therapy could be as effective as radical mastectomy for certain breast patients.
  • M. D. Anderson neuro-oncologists and scientists discovered that 90 percent of people with glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly form of brain cancer, possess the MAC1 gene, a gene that has also been found in some kidney, breast and prostate cancers.
  • Waun Ki Hong, M.D. demonstrated for the first time that vitamin A analogues (retinoids) can reverse precancerous lesions in the mouth and prevent or delay the onset of cancer. This finding pioneered a new field of study known as chemoprevention.
  • In 2000, the Texas Legislature enabled M. D. Anderson to award baccalaureate degrees in cytotechnology, cytogenetic technology, medical dosimetry, molecular genetic technology, diagnostic imaging, histotechnology, clinical laboratory science and radiation therapy.

Who was M. D. Anderson?

Monroe Dunaway Anderson (1873-1939) was a banker and cotton trader from Jackson, Tennessee who moved to Houston in 1907. With his brother-in-law, Will Clayton, Anderson built Anderson, Clayton & Co. into the world's biggest cotton company. For many years he was one of Houston's leading citizens.

Anderson created the M. D. Anderson Foundation with an initial sum of $300,000 for the "charitable, scientific or educational proposes in Texas... the benefit of mankind and... the advancement of human welfare" to avoid the loss of a large amount of money to estate taxes in the event of his death. In 1939, after Anderson's death, the foundation received an additional $19 million.

When the Texas Legislature appropriated $500,000 to build a cancer hospital and research center in 1941, the M. D. Anderson Foundation offered to match the state funds, provide a temporary home and a permanent building site if the hospital were located in Houston in the Texas Medical Center (another project of the Anderson Foundation). In gratitude, University of Texas regents named the new hospital for Anderson.

Anderson, a bachelor, fell in love only once and never seriously dated again after his marriage proposal was turned down. When she died of cancer, he mourned as if he had lost his wife. He was known for his frugality and thrift, industry and integrity.

This news release was issued on behalf of Newswise(TM). For more information, visit


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